University of Georgia head basketball coach Mark Fox, right, talks with interviewer Chuck Dowdle during the University alumni association’s UGA Day on Tuesday at Gwinnett Center. (Staff Photo: Mitch Blomert)
Mark Richt hasn’t been without a whirlwind of change since Georgia’s 2013 season ended a little more than six months ago.
His record-setting quarterback departed. Then his defensive coordinator. Key members of the secondary were forced to make an early exit from the program.
Even away from Sanford Stadium, it was a changing of times. He added a new off-field title: grandfather.
Or whatever his new granddaughter, born a week ago, wants to call him.
“I might have to tweet it out,” a tight-lipped Richt said. “I’ve had too many people ask me. The reality is whatever Jaden calls me is what I’m going to be.”
But even with all the shakeups in Athens, Georgia’s longtime coach appeared pleased as ever about his team’s potential at the alumni association’s annual UGA Day at Gwinnett Center.
The Bulldogs finished 8-5 in the 2013, fighting off a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball before capping off the subpar campaign with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
“I think we’re going to be very good,” Richt said. “The problem in our league is that everybody is good. We know we have a long way to go in some areas, and as a team we have to establish what we’re all about, as far as leadership is concerned and how we react to real-life adversity in regard to real-life football games.”
Richt, joined at the event alongside Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and baseball coach Scott Stricklin, spoke highly of his defense’s progress under first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, as well as new starting quarterback Hutson Mason, who will shoulder the load of replacing SEC all-time leading passer Aaron Murray.
It’s certainly a good time for Richt to feel optimistic about the progress.
A season opener against Clemson awaits the Bulldogs on Aug. 31, followed by the typical string of SEC foes that make up the rest of the schedule.
Georgia has been touted as a team that could be in the championship picture when the new College Football Playoff format takes center stage for the first time this season.
“Just on a daily basis, we have to become the best we can be in all areas,” Richt said. “All we can do is focus on our preparation, and hope that when the time comes, our habits are good enough in the games that we’ll do the right thing at the right time.”
That means riding the forthcoming offensive fluctuation stemming from a massive quarterback turnover in the SEC. Seven starting quarterbacks from 2013, Murray included, have departed.
Richt wouldn’t say how the turnover will play out for the rest of the conference, but he’s undoubtedly confident that Mason is the right man for the signal caller job between the hedges.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape when it comes to the skill we have around Hutson,” Richt said. “I don’t think Hutson has to carry this team offensively. He just needs to run our system well and be wise with his decisions throwing the football.”
Defensively, Georgia starts the season missing 2013 starting safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons, both of whom were dismissed from the team during the offseason for violating team rules.
Matthews has since settled in at Auburn, while Harvey-Clemons headed to Louisville, taking former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with him.
Pruitt, who has won national championships the past three seasons with Florida State and Alabama, has instilled a sense of confidence in his new boss after a productive spring.
Now it’s a matter of putting it all together on Saturdays.
“I think that if you’re good at what you do, and it’s sound, then you have a chance to win,” Richt said. “If you put scheme ahead of execution, then you’re going to get beat. Because guys are going to make mistakes, make big plays on both sides of the ball.”
Fox also seems to have Georgia’s basketball program pointing in the right direction, despite the recent departure of forward Brandon Morris following an arrest for possession of marijuana.
Morris was arrested early Sunday in Athens, and has since posted bond.
“I was disappointed as I’ve ever been in coaching,” Fox said. “I was really heartbroken. It was a real range of emotions from anger to sadness to disappointment. It was really a tough deal.”
Fox brings back the majority of his lineup after a 20-14 campaign in 2013-14, one that kept the Bulldogs in NCAA Tournament talks up until a second-round loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament.
Stricklin enters his second season as Georgia’s head baseball coach after posting a 26-29-1 record in 2014. That proved to be an improvement from the team’s 2013 campaign.
With 13 new players and a bolstered pitching staff, Stricklin spoke of his 2015 lineup with certain optimism.
“We feel very good about where we are,” he said. “I think on the mound we have a chance to be better than we were last year. We feel like on the mound — and that’s where you win championships — we’re going to be better, and I think we have a chance to take another step forward.”