A year ago, the questions about preseason expectations came with the ferocity of an ill-tempered linebacker. And by the time the season actually kicked off, Georgia head coach Mark Richt had a response so practiced he could recite it in his sleep.
As Richt has begun his normal offseason tour of Georgia fan club meetings, both the tone of the questions and response from the coach have changed. The fans aren’t asking about national championships, and Richt isn’t having to assure anyone that his team isn’t worrying about preseason rankings.
This year, even Richt admits his team is a bit of a mystery with a future that’s tough to prognosticate.
“I think the fans are just excited about the unknown,” Richt said at a meeting of the Macon Bulldog Club on Wednesday. “They’re not really sure what to expect, but they’re anxious to see a lot of young players step up and make their mark.”
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With stars like Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, last year’s team was loaded with potential. Most of the big names will be playing in the NFL in 2009, however, and the immense expectations have dissipated, too.
Of course, there’s also plenty of talent left on the roster, but many of the players being counted on to carry the load in 2009 haven’t proven they’re up to the task.
The result has been a cloak of mystery and tempered expectations that stand in stark contrast to the national-championship hysteria that infected Georgia fans a year ago.
After spending months repeating the same refrain prior to last season, however, Richt said the uncertainty that surrounds the 2009 season has actually been a pleasant change.
“I don’t think anybody’s too bent out of shape about it,” Richt said. “I think even the players like coming in under the radar a little bit, too.”
Not only are the questions from fans or the expectations placed on the team different this offseason, Richt said. He has learned a few things from the experiences of 2008, too.
There were too many injuries last season, and this season Richt said he hopes to tweak his practice routine in order to keep his team healthy.
There were too many off-field issues, with more than a half-dozen players landing suspensions. Richt has promised a new approach to that, too, although a Georgia Web site reported Wednesday that three Bulldogs would likely be suspended to start the season for a violation of team rules — a report Richt failed to confirm.
And there was also that response he offered to all those fans that wanted to know how his team would deal with the weight of being No. 1 to start the season. The Bulldogs would be fine, Richt assured them.
They weren’t concerned with preseason hype.
As it turned out, however, that wasn’t exactly true. After a 10-3 season that most considered a disappointment, many of Georgia’s players have admitted they didn’t handle the role of No. 1 as well as they should have. They didn’t know how to deal with the expectations.
That won’t be an issue this season, but Richt said the experience taught him some valuable lessons that he will carry through 2009.
“I think every year you learn,” Richt said. “You wish you could have a crystal ball and know what’s coming down the pike and be able to handle every situation perfectly. But you learn from experience, and we certainly had a few new ones that we hadn’t had to deal with before. Hopefully we’ll be able to handle them a little better in the future.”
Georgia could be without three players to start the 2009 season because of suspensions, according to UGASports.com.
The Web site reported that tight end Bruce Figgins, defensive end Justin Houston and wide receiver Tony Wilson would each be suspended for an undetermined period after violating team rules.
Head coach Mark Richt would not confirm the suspensions Wednesday, however, saying in a statement through sports information director Claude Felton that “there is nothing to report” at this time.
Georgia was plagued by off-field incidents a year ago and began the
2008 season with more than a half-dozen players suspended. Things had been quiet on that front so far in 2009, with Richt noting that he was employing a stricter approach to discipline this year.
Still, Richt cautioned that these issues are likely to crop up at any program.
“We do have to remember these guys are human,” Richt said last month. “These guys are being watched more closely than probably any group in the state of Georgia. There’s no place to hide. So am I going to sit here and say that these guys are never going to make a mistake again?
“That’s very unrealistic, but I think at least we’ve had a very good start and guys, as a whole, want to do the right thing. But shoot, who knows what tomorrow brings, right?”
— David Hale, The Telegraph