The only conceivable way this day could have gone better for the Georgia football program would have been if Orson Charles had decided he didn’t want to go to the NFL after all.
He didn’t, but everything else has broken right for the Bulldogs. Tailback recruit Todd Gurley committed, a slew of juniors announced they were staying, and, for good measure, backup quarterback Hutson Mason decided to stick around.
Mason will redshirt next year as part of a plan to be taken out of Aaron Murray’s class and thus have a chance to be a starter for at least one season. That means Christian LeMay, or even incoming freshman Faton Bauta, will step into the No. 2 role at the team’s most important position.
“Right now, it’s pretty safe to say I’m going to start off the year redshirting next year,” Mason said. “How it’s going to be handled with me and the other quarterbacks, I don’t think I can answer that right now. … If Murray got hurt in July, he should have time to recover unless he did something just horrific. I pray that doesn’t happen, because I’m going to be Murray’s biggest fan.”
But optimism reigns in Athens right now, where nine of 11 starters will return from a defense that finished the year ranked fifth in the nation. And it’s actually 10 starters if defensive end Garrison Smith, who replaced the injured DeAngelo Tyson for the final two games, is counted.
“A lot of people thought last year was a special season for us, but this could go down in history,” said junior safety Bacarri Rambo, who was the headliner among the players deciding to return.
Georgia trotted out all the returning juniors and Mason to herald the news. The lovefest was intended to give the program a lift heading into the offseason, but the Bulldogs have already popped up on every early preseason top 10 for next year.
This will only reinforce the high expectations. The loss of Charles was almost expected, as he’s projected to be one of top tight end prospects in the NFL draft. But the defense, after such a good year, had a number of players explore whether now was the right time to cash in on their draft stock.
Rambo was the most notable, but he announced on Wednesday he was staying. Gradually other defensive players revealed the same thing, with cornerback Branden Smith -- who played coy up until the final second -- making it official at Friday’s news conference.
“Everybody in the room had options,” said outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, who said he got his desired draft evaluation from the NFL. “That’s one of the hardest things to deal with. You take one option, but to take that one, you have to give up another. I was just amazed with the selflessness of everybody that decided to stay.”
Said Rambo, “I came back for several reasons, but the main reason is we’ve got a great group of guys coming back. Who wouldn’t want to come back with these guys just to win? … The defense, we’re going to ball out. We’re going to be lights-out. I felt like I should come back to help those guys win.”
Then there was Mason, who was very up front all season about needing to make an important decision for his future.
“It was probably by far the hardest decision I’ve had to make so far in my young life,” Mason said. “But I’m so blessed to have a family that played a pivotal role in my life. With a mom that worries all the time, it made it harder. ...
“I wanted to be here. I wanted to stay. I just had to figure out what was best for me. There’s no doubt my heart was here, but my mind was kind of in a different place. It was an easier decision when they offered me that redshirt.”
Gentry Estes of Dawgs247 contributed to this report.