JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Welcome to the Weird Bowl.
That’s not the formal name, but that’s the vibe.
Georgia and Penn State both arrive at the former Gator Bowl — now known as the TaxSlayer Bowl – in various states of flux. Since the firing of head coach Mark Richt on Nov. 29, the Bulldogs’ coaching staff has been in total disarray. Georgia (9-3) will enter EverBank Field behind an interim head coach, two interim coordinators and eight soon-to-be gone assistant coaches.
Likewise, the Nittany Lions’ (7-5) offense will be under the direction of a temporary coordinator. Ricky Rahne (pronounced ronnie), quarterbacks coach for the last two years, put in the game plan for the bowl and will call the plays against the Bulldogs. That’s because head coach James Franklin fired John Donovan as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. He has since hired Joe Moorhead, and he’s already on the job, but he won’t work the bowl game.
Georgia’s new head coach, Kirby Smart, is still coaching Alabama’s defense along with one of the assistants he’s bringing with him to Athens, eventually. But he’ll be at Saturday’s game — as an observer. Smart and his new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney flew into Jacksonville Friday and were in meetings all day at the Sawgrass Marriott, where the team is staying for the bowl game.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator all season, Jeremy Pruitt, is also with the Crimson Tide. So they have two defensive coordinators in Alabama and one interim one – Kevin Sherrer – at Georgia.
In the meantime, four former members of Richt’s support staff are now filling on-field assistants’ positions. None of them are certain what they’ll be doing next week.
“Yeah, there are definitely a lot of dynamics going on,” Georgia senior tackle John Theus said with a laugh.
All the disorder would seem a recipe for disaster in the bowl, or at least for rampant disorganization. But the Bulldogs insist it’s anything but.
“I feel like we were actually more focused (for) bowl practices than we have been in the last three or four years since I’ve been here,” UGA senior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “We knew we were facing a little bit of adversity and knew we had to respond to it, and get guys in the right mindset for the practices. We came here focused. We listened to B-Mac and all bought in. We’ve just practiced hard and kept our heads up the whole time.”
Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s interim head coach, is often referenced by the Bulldogs as a rallying factor. The 32-year-old UGA graduate and letterman will leave for South Carolina and a new job as Will Muschamp’s co-offensive coordinator next week. But players say he has been unrelenting and driven about his temporary assignment and has been on them to the same way.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot going on … but Coach B-Mac and the rest of the staff did a great job keeping us focused,” Theus said. “Honestly, we had some of the best practices we’ve had in a long time. Guys really got after it, starting back in Athens and we continued it over to this week. If anything, we practiced a little bit better for that reason. Guys are ready to play this week.”
While Penn State’s changes haven’t been quite as sweeping, it has also required some adjustment. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg flourished under Donovan’s tutelage, starting every game for three seasons and setting school records for career passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior is expected to give the NFL a long look after this season and most anticipate he’ll make the jump.
But the coaching changes won’t be an influence.
“It’s been a pretty flawless transition,” said Hackenberg, who has thrown for 2,386 yards and 16 touchdowns but has been sacked 38 times. “Coach Rahne is a guy we know very well, a guy who we’ve worked with every day. It’s just he’s calling the plays. So I guess it’s a different voice, but a lot of the same messages.”
Both head coaches said the effect of the changes has been overblown.
“It’s definitely talked about probably more than it should be,” McClendon said. “This late in the season, pretty much systematically you have everything in. You’re going to tweak things each game anyway. Ultimately, whoever your coordinator is going to be, they’re going to do what you do and tweak things here and there to give you the best chance to win.”
Tight ends coach John Lilly is serving as Georgia’s offensive coordinator, just as he did after Mike Bobo left before last year’s Belk Bowl. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer is coordinating the defense, which he did at South Alabama before joining the Bulldogs last year. Sherrer and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker are the only assistants so that Smart has said will be retained.
Sam Pettito, Todd Hartley, Olten Downs and Courtney Coard have all moved from office jobs or graduate assistant roles to being position coaches.
“Our graduate assistants that we hire now are not like they were 10 or 15 years ago,” Penn State’s Franklin said. “They’re experienced coaches that are trying to get their foot in the door at this level. … And neither of these staffs are going to reinvent the wheel. You’re going to do the things you’ve done in the past.”
Still, Georgia’s players expressed appreciation for the coaches that have chosen to stick around. McClendon (South Carolina), running backs coach Thomas Brown (Miami), offensive line coach Rob Sale (Louisiana-Monroe) and Lilly (unknown) are all starting new jobs after the bowl.
“The coaches that are here are here for us,” Theus said “If Coach Mac wanted, he could be at South Carolina. TB could be at Miami already. Those coaches could be gone, but they’re here for us and we know that and we respect them for that.”
But it has definitely made for a Weird Bowl.