CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If there can be such a thing as contained euphoria, that described the scene on the field Tuesday night as the Georgia football team celebrated its bowl win over Louisville.
Players, coaches and staff members seemed to celebrate and exhale at the same time. Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator known more for his crusty side, sought out seniors, including defensive linemen, for long embraces.
There was a joy in finishing the season by thumping a ranked opponent, as well as an awareness that the season had still fallen short of the major goals.
“This program is different from where it was a year ago, and it’s going to continue to change to where it needs to be,” senior cornerback Damian Swann said. “It may take two years, it may take five. But eventually this program is going to get to where it needs to be to compete for national championships, to compete every year for an SEC championship. This program is on the rise and it’s only going to continue to get better.”
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Swann won’t be around to be part of it, but the Bulldogs look to be well-equipped for another good season. There are just a few key uncertain areas, as there have been entering every recent season:
The defense improved under Pruitt this year, but it loses its best defensive back (Swann), as well as dependable inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera.
The offense needs a new coordinator to replace Mike Bobo and a quarterback to replace Hutson Mason. That was always assumed to be Brice Ramsey, but the coaching change and the redshirt freshman’s performance Tuesday make it obvious there will be a healthy spring competition. Jacob Park, a freshman who redshirted this season, and Faton Bauta, an athletic sophomore, will be in the mix.
There are also some key off-field issues to resolve. Head coach Mark Richt and athletics director Greg McGarity will look to hash out issues such as coaches’ pay and facility commitments. Besides hiring a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Richt wants to retain the other current assistants, and that might require raises. Pruitt has also been vocal about pushing forward on an indoor practice facility.
Amid all the uncertainty, however, the Bulldogs have many reasons to think they can be very good in 2015:
Nick Chubb didn’t just ease the pain of Todd Gurley’s loss, he became a star in his own right. Chubb’s 1,547 rushing yards tied for the fourth-best in program history, the second-most by a freshman. Only Herschel Walker was above him in each category.
“It’s huge to have a playmaker like that in the backfield,” Ramsey said. “It takes a lot of the pressure off the quarterback.”
And it’s not just Chubb. Throw in fellow freshman Sony Michel and a healthy Keith Marshall, and Georgia will once again have one of the best backfields in the nation.
The offensive line is set to return four of its five starters. The key is replacing David Andrews at center, but everyone else is back from what was a stalwart unit in 2014.
Also set to return is Malcolm Mitchell, the playmaking receiver who looked closer to full health as the season ended, and tight ends Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome.
“We’ve got some good things offensively to build around, no doubt,” Richt said.
Pruitt has some pieces for next season. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter are all potential stars. Safety Dominick Sanders, who had two interceptions in the bowl game, was a revelation this season.
But there will surely be a lot of youth again on defense, as Pruitt and Richt have accumulated a heralded recruiting class. That’s headlined by defensive tackle Trent Thompson, but also plenty of recruits who should play right away.
Finally, on special teams, place-kicker Marshall Morgan and dynamic return specialist Isaiah McKenzie both return. The punting game was a concern this season, but the way the offense played, it wasn’t as noticed.
As things stand now, Georgia figures to enter next season the way it has the past few: A team that has pieces to be a championship contender, but questions about whether it can go all the way.
“Some changes were made, just the way we work out, the way we train, doing things the right thing. All those things have happened,” Swann said. “Now it’s time for them to happen consistently every year to where it can build and be dominant.”