JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Amid plenty of reasons – coaching changes, a fifth trip to Jacksonville in three years – for this to have been the most wasted of bowl trips, Georgia’s experience in the week leading up to Saturday has turned out to be something else.
The Bulldogs have stayed at a resort hotel that adjoins the TPC at Sawgrass golf course. The weather has been nice this week, so players have gone to the beach, goofed off and relaxed.
“It’s nice. It gives everybody a chance to cool their engines, relax and enjoy the bowl game,” senior offensive lineman Kolton Houston said. “That’s what bowl games are about. Have football when you have it, but when you’re not (practicing) be able to enjoy your time.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been some intense moments, such as when practice was beginning on Wednesday.
Tracy Rocker, the defensive line coach who is in fact returning next year, didn’t like something he saw across the field from a couple young players, and began yelling at them very loudly across the field. Rocker became so loud, and so colorful (the words cannot be printed here) that senior linebacker Jake Ganus lost his train of thought during a media session.
“Mid-quote, I forgot what I was saying,” Ganus said, laughing along with reporters.
So there have been many light moments. And there has been football.
But it’s still been a rather surreal time, given the events swirling around.
The weirdness was encapsulated on Wednesday: In the morning assistant coach Thomas Brown, who told his players last week he was headed to Miami, was still teaching and coaching up Georgia’s running backs. That afternoon Miami officially announced Brown’s hiring, and Brown followed up with a tweet saying “It’s all about the U.”
And the next morning Brown was back at Georgia practice.
“In bowl games in general, the teams that are more excited about playing do better,” said Georgia interim coach Bryan McClendon – himself headed to South Carolina – who also acknowledged that “it’s hard to judge” a team’s motivation leading up to a bowl.
So with all the coaching turnover, that could go two ways for Georgia: It could be deflating and distracting, and thus negative. Or it could have a rallying effect for players and the remaining coaches.
But in interviews with several players – at least those made available to the media – they said there isn’t any grand desire to win one for the departed coaches and send a message. The stated focus remains on just winning a 10th game, just like last year.
“We definitely want to win our 10th game. But I wouldn’t say we want to win for the coaches. We want to win it for us,” Houston said. “Everybody that’s involved with our football program. We all deserve it.”
Several other players said motivation comes down purely to the competitor inside them.
“That’s the only motivation I need, is someone lining up ahead of me,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “That’s motivation enough for me.”
Meanwhile, the team on the other sideline won’t be too sympathetic with Georgia’s transition issues.
Penn State’s seniors went through the sanctions (handed down in 2012) that arose from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and they endured their own coaching change two years ago, from Bill O’Brien to James Franklin.
“They’ve been through hell and back with that. I forgot about all that,” senior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “We’ve really gone through a lot as well. I think ours may be a little bit more hectic through all the coaching chances in such a rapid time frame.”
Or at least more recent. But players and coaches say – and at least hope – that the time off and getting out of town should help. The result, ideally, is a good week of practice that will lead to a normal game on Saturday.
Even though the past month has been anything but normal.
“There’s always people on the outside saying there’s no way we could get motivated,” Jenkins said. “It really comes from your makeup. If you say you’re a man, if you say you’re a Georgia Bulldog, you finish what you started, you fight to the very end. You know you’ve got coaches who want to be here, you know you’ve got players who want to be here.”