September 28, 2013.
On a picture-perfect day in Athens, Georgia had just knocked off the #6 team in the nation. The team, and its star quarterback, were the toast of ESPN’s Gameday. Neither fans nor players, recognizing the glory of the moment, wanted to leave the stadium. With a grueling September that featured wins over LSU and SEC East favorite South Carolina, the Dawgs looked to have put a narrow season-opening setback at Clemson behind them and reestablished themselves in the national conversation. An emotional Mark Richt, with the opening month and far more important things weighing on him, summed it up: “No one does it better than Georgia.”
If the preseason consensus was correct, Georgia had passed its toughest tests and had become the frontrunner for a third straight SEC East title. But that spectacular day in September proved to be the peak and not the launching point. The injuries had already started piling up. The top receiver and now top tailback were out of service after the LSU game. That was just a preview of the attrition that left Georgia depleted across the offense and eventually cost them their starting quarterback. A young defense never really came together, and fans were glad to see the once-celebrated coordinator head elsewhere. Even the schedule didn’t go according to plan. Missouri and Auburn were better than expected, and the Dawgs ended up playing the SEC Championship participants after Georgia’s tough September.
As much as we’d like to forget the 5-4 finish to the 2013 season, I’ll want to take four things from it. There’s the improbable game-tying drive at Tennessee which featured two true freshmen tailbacks and a reserve receiver in a must-score situation on the road. Any win over Florida deserves celebration, and this one was the third win in a row in a series that was going the other way for far too long. Even with the game’s sickening finish, Murray was at his best and toughest in the comeback at Auburn in what turned out to be his last complete game. The comeback overtime win at Tech was a nice way to end the regular season and deny our in-state rivals the win they thought was in the bag.
But those bright moments aside, it was an end of the season we’d rather not remember. It was fitting that the bowl game was an uninspired and forgettable loss – by that point most of us were beyond ready to put the season behind us and start over. Within days of the bowl the entire defensive staff had turned over, and Georgia introduced a new coordinator who almost overnight got moping fans excited again about the future of the program.
The arrival of Jeremy Pruitt (and, soon after, three new defensive assistants) had an immediate impact on recruiting as Georgia secured a small but top 10 2014 signing class. Pruitt and his new staff made a number of defensive offers right up to the end, and Georgia assembled nearly a quarter of its signing class in the 10 days leading up to Signing Day. The biggest late catch was in-state defensive end Lorenzo Carter. Carter favored Georgia, but he could name his school and wavered during the coaching turnover. The addition of Pruitt and Tracy Rocker to the staff was enough to assure Carter, and he’s expected to play and contribute right away.
Spring practice was fairly uneventful as the new defense was installed. The offensive line and secondary emerged as concerns, and they remained two of the more unsettled areas right through August’s preseason camp. The story then became about attrition, especially on the defense. A coaching change often brings about some departures, and Pruitt’s no-nonsense approach butted heads with even some established starters. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins left and ended up at Louisville. Safety Tray Matthews was dismissed and will play for Auburn. Most recently, defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was dismissed. All four were expected to contribute in 2014, if not start, and the safety position in particular has had to adapt. To add to the trouble, six Georgia players accounted for seven arrests over the offseason.
Once the dismissed players are removed from the roster, Georgia only has a couple of players suspended for the start of the season:
- Receiver Justin Scott-Wesley is out for at least one game due to a marijuana arrest. He’s still working his way back from a serious knee injury, so his exact return is still up in the air.
- Linebacker Davin Bellamy will miss the first two games due to a DUI arrest.
Georgia made it through preseason camp with mostly minor injuries. Unfortunately Malcolm Mitchell had a setback with his knee and will miss at least the opener. A concussion cut short the career of Merritt Hall. Yes, Chris Conley has a shoulder that is going to bother him. Yes, Ramik Wilson had a concussion that has stirred up some drama at his position. But the usual preseason knocks aside, the team is in fairly good health heading into the opener.