ATHENS -- Mike Thornton was asked the other day what it was like to play for Vince Dooley. Thornton smiled and laughed.
“Yeah. I’ve been around here for awhile,” said the defensive tackle, who joined the Georgia football team in 2010. “Some of the young guys are like, ‘Dang, you know so-and-so?’ Because I know guys like A.J. Green.”
Michael Bennett knows Green, too; they were fellow receivers on the 2010 team, when Bennett redshirted.
“Oh yeah, it’s been awhile. My legs are giving out on me a little bit,” Bennett said, joking.
Thornton and Bennett may both feel like graybeards, but there’s a stark difference in their perspectives, which tells something about the program during the past five seasons.
Bennett, along with quarterback Hutson Mason, has had the same position coaches and offensive coordinator the whole time. They’ve played in the same offense, and had time to develop.
Thornton, on the other hand, is on his third defensive coordinator, if you count Willie Martinez, who recruited him to Georgia to play a 4-3, then was fired before Thornton enrolled. Since then, Thornton has had two defensive coordinators (Todd Grantham and now Jeremy Pruitt) and three defensive line coaches (Rodney Garner, Chris Wilson and now Tracy Rocker).
“It’s been a lot of change around here for the five years that I’ve been here,” Thornton said, shaking his head. “But it’s all been for the good. It’s a lot of learning experiences. I feel like they’re life lessons, and I’ll live with them forever.”
Thornton, Bennett, Mason and Kolton Houston were members of Georgia’s 2010 signing class, which was the lowest-ranked of head coach Mark Richt’s tenure, and has lived up (or down) to that status.
Alec Ogletree became a star and left two years ago for the NFL draft, where he was a first-rounder. Kenarious Gates and Garrison Smith were longtime starters in their four years.
But otherwise, the class was filled with disappointments, transfers and players whose careers ended early:
T.J. Stripling, a highly touted outside linebacker, tore his knee his freshman year and was never the same. Brent Benedict, a highly-routed offensive lineman, transferred to Virginia Tech three years ago. Tailback Ken Malcome transferred two years ago because of playing time.
In total, four members of the class transferred, one was dismissed (Demetre Baker in 2010), and three had careers end early for various reasons (Zander Ogletree, Dexter Morant, Brandon Burrows).
But this year’s fifth-year seniors have a chance to give that 2010 class a measure of a legacy: All four are currently projected as starters.
Several more walk-ons are set to contribute: Receiver Michael Erdman, punter Adam Erickson, and special teams standout Kosta Vavlas.
The four remaining members of the 2010 signing class have also experienced different levels of adversity: Houston had a three-year battle with the NCAA, Mason had to wait behind Aaron Murray, and Bennett suffered an ACL injury in 2012.
“It’s just been a character-building time for me,” Bennett said. “I came in kind of mature, and found out I was a man. Like everyone does, but then I got humbled real quick. I had such a great year my redshirt sophomore year just starting off, and then to tear my ACL and completely lose football for a long time.
“It kind of got my mind focused on other things, which is being a good man, getting my faith in God right. And really just treating other people right. And then focus off football for a little bit. That was really good.
“And then to get back last year and get hurt again, it kinda sucked.
“But again, it’s just something you’ve gotta bounce back from, and I think I did a good job. And hopefully this year I’ll stay healthy.”
Thornton’s adversity has really been no fault his own. The change in schemes hurt him, as his size (6-foot-3, about 290 pounds) has always made him more suited to be a 4-3 defensive tackle. Last year, he entered the preseason as the presumed starting nose tackle, but ended up with no starts, and just five tackles in 10 games.
But this year should be in his wheelhouse. Grantham and company wanted bigger nose tackles. Pruitt and Rocker want quicker players, even on the line.
Finally, Thornton feels like he’s hearing more than lip service.
“Coming in, I was under the impression of that same thing, that we were gonna be some quick, smaller guys, but it just didn’t work out that way,” Thornton said. “That’s fine. I’m still here. I’m enjoying my last year. I’m going to do whatever my coaches ask me to do.”