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Post Richt pulls the trigger on wholesale defensive changes – now what?

Wednesday December 2, 2009

Well, it’s official. Mark Richt has announced that three defensive coaches – coordinator/DB coach Willie Martinez, linebackers coach John Jancek, and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris – will not return for the 2010 season.

“I cannot express enough my thanks to all three for their contributions to our program,” said Richt. “However, in the final analysis I’m charged with providing the leadership and direction for the Georgia program and sometimes that means making difficult decisions. This was one of them.”

I can’t say it was unexpected, but I question anyone who doesn’t respect the human angle to this story. It had to be excruciating for Mark Richt and it goes without saying that everyone from the coaches to their families to the student-athletes under their direction are in a very bad place today. The news is especially tough in the case of Martinez and Fabris. The case can be made against either professionally, but both men made key contributions to the elevation of the Georgia program during this decade, produced some incredibly successful units at their respective positions, and both were in Athens long enough to put down considerable roots.

It doesn’t escape notice that there was one defensive coach who will apparently be retained. Mark Richt made it a point to keep Rodney Garner when Richt took over the program at the end of 2000, and it seems as if Richt will again turn to Garner as a source of stability. The question is whether Garner is interested in serving in that same role this time. Garner continues to make no secret of his ambition to become a head coach (and we certainly don’t begrudge him his ambition). He’s courted offers from rival programs recently, and comments by Damon Evans over Garner’s lack of a contract don’t seem to indicate the best of working relationships. Garner might not be let go, but it remains to be seen whether Mark Richt will be looking to replace the entire defensive staff anyway.

One conclusion is that Garner might be promoted to defensive coordinator, but I doubt it. First, you’d expect that to be part of today’s announcement in order to minimize uncertainty about the future of the defense. It would also be tough to sell an internal promotion when the last one brought us to this point (twice, if you count Jancek’s offseason promotion to “co-coordinator”). Garner likely won’t even get a chance to be interim coordinator as all three departing coaches have been asked to remain on through the bowl game.

Now the tough part – getting the right people in place. There will be immediate comparisons to the disastrous changes made at Auburn and Tennessee that ended up bringing down the head coach. This is a slightly different situation – it’s not just a new coordinator being added to the staff. There will be the opportunity to assemble an almost entirely new defensive staff, and you’d expect that the new coordinator will have a say in the composition of the staff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Georgia’s transition will be smooth or the new defense successful. There is risk involved, and we can’t get away from that. At the same time, this is a bigger task than just hiring that one coordinator. You’ve got to find (at least) three coaches who will work well together, work well with Richt, work well for Georgia, and do it while most candidates are preparing for their own postseason.

There’s also recruiting. Georgia already has a solid class with some quality defenders committed, and they’ve targeted a few more to close things out. Keeping the class as intact as possible has to be a priority. It’s unavoidable that those prospects will now get the full court press from Georgia’s recruiting competition. Garner could certainly have an impact on this situation if he decides to remain on the staff. It’s already started – key commitments like safety Alec Ogletree are already having to answer questions, but, at least in Ogletree’s case, the commitment seems firm.

PS…although today’s all about the defense, there are rumors about the other side of the ball. David Pollack tweeted within the past week about possible Texas interest in offensive line coach Stacy Searels. Searels was approached by Auburn during last offseason, but he chose to remain at Georgia. Hoepfully he’ll do so again.

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