July 21, 2011

Richt needs freshmen to step up in a hurry

HOOVER, Ala. - In Georgia, the home state of the prestigious Augusta National golf course, the concept of a mulligan is familiar.

Yet as much as Georgians love golf, they love college football even more. And after last season's disappointing 6-7 finish, it's apparent Georgia coach Mark Richt has used his mulligan.

From Atlanta to Savannah, there have been calls for Richt's ouster. Those calls were ignored by Georgia's administration, but another subpar season isn't likely to be tolerated in Athens.

It matters not that Richt, who is entering his 11th season in Athens, has had six 10-win seasons and owns a 96-34 career record. Nor does it matter that last season was his first with a losing record.

Such is life in the SEC. Auburn fired Tommy Tuberville after his first losing record in nine seasons. Ole Miss fired David Cutcliffe one year removed from the school's first 10-win season in 32 years. Phillip Fulmer was fired after a 5-7 finish in 2008 - one season after going 10-4. Richt's predecessor at Georgia, Jim Donnan, was fired after consecutive 8-4 seasons.

"Coach Richt is like a father figure to us," Georgia senior center Ben Jones said Thursday at SEC Media Days. "That would just crush us if something happened to Coach Richt because of us. We're taking it under our wing and playing with everything we've got in every game for Coach Richt. He's like everything to us. That's the reason a lot of us came to Georgia."

Richt is aware of the demands and calls for a coaching change but said he isn't affected by them.

"I know if you walk in the Butts-Mehre Building [the athletic administration building], there's not one sense of doom or gloom," Richt said. "There's only excitement, only guys that are so thankful that we've got a new season and a clean slate and the ability to play great opponents to start the year. ...

"I don't worry about all that. I worry about the future. I worry about enjoying the ride. We're in good shape."

Actually, that's subject for debate. The Bulldogs lost their best offensive (wide receiver A.J. Green) and defensive (linebacker Justin Houston) players from last season. There is no established go-to receiver or feature back. The offensive line is in flux. Three of the four starting linebackers will be new. Furthermore, the Bulldogs face a challenging early-season schedule that has Boise State and SEC East favorite South Carolina in the first two games.

The Bulldogs figure to need immediate help from their 2011 recruiting class - nicknamed "The Dream Team" - which was ranked fifth in the country. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell figures to be in the starting lineup when the Bulldogs open against Boise State. Freshman wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is drawing raves from sophomore Aaron Murray, who might be the best quarterback in the SEC. And freshman end Ray Drew and junior college tackle Jonathan Jenkins should be important additions to a defense that should be improved in its second year under coordinator Todd Grantham.

Richt is doing his best to downplay expectations about the newcomers.

"We don't really expect a freshman to come and carry our program. We expect him to come in and compete," Richt said. "When it comes to junior college guys like Jenkins, we expect a junior college guy to come in and play. We're expecting Jenkins to come in and play right now and maybe become a starter for us if he can beat out [sophomore] Kwame Geathers.

"But there is no question we will need help from our freshman class to become a championship team. I don't have any doubt about that."

Counting on freshmen to make a significant difference in a championship race is dicey in the SEC - even in the East, where Bulldogs rivals Tennessee and Florida also are coming off subpar seasons.

Despite that Georgia is coming off its worst season since 1996, Richt is confident the Bulldogs will be a major factor in the SEC race for several reasons.

"Number one, we know we've got an outstanding bunch of football players and some outstanding coaches," he said. "We know we have a great fan base. We know that six of our losses [last season] were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. If we just finish better, we'll have a better season. We're not getting blown out of the water, we just didn't win. We know that.

"We had a tremendous recruiting class. There's tremendous momentum that was gained by the young men who decided to become a Bulldog. I can't talk about names or whatever, but we have guys that are committing to us not only for the 2012 class but 2013 and even 2014. So, people have faith in our program and our leadership."

That's great, but if Georgia doesn't win big in 2011, another coach probably will be leading the Bulldogs in 2012.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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