PONTE VEDRA, Fla. – John Lilly, one of the symbols of the weird transition going on with the Georgia football team, walked through a hotel lobby here on Sunday night still wearing a Georgia hat. He will serve as the team’s offensive coordinator in the bowl, but he has already cleaned out his office back home in Athens.
Other players and staffers began streaming in on Sunday. It officially was reporting day for Georgia’s final week, but more than a few coaches and players on this year’s team will be no-shows.
The former head coach is in Miami. The new head coach is still with his former team. The interim head coach is only with the Bulldogs one more week until he joins South Carolina. The former defensive coordinator is also back at Alabama, already in his new job. The former offensive coordinator will not be here, nor will one other defensive assistant. The quarterback who started this year’s previous game in Jacksonville has already transferred and found a new school.
All that served as the backdrop Monday as the Bulldogs return to practice, preparing for a match-up with Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl that many have deemed irrelevant. Still, players and (some) staffers are here, and here is what to watch over the next week:
1. Lilly’s gameplan: Will it change much with Lilly, the tight ends coach, at the controls rather than deposed former OC Brian Schottenheimer? Last year Lilly called plays in the Belk Bowl, and the result was a wild success, but that was with the gameplan Mike Bobo had installed before he took the Colorado State head coaching job. (And last week Bobo landed Faton Bauta, who started that ill-fated Georgia game here in October.) This time Lilly has had a couple weeks to put his own touches on the gameplan, and while interim head coach Bryan McClendon has said not much will change – Greyson Lambert remains the starting quarterback, for instance – Lilly will probably have his own wrinkles to put on an offense that proved to be the team’s undoing this season.
2. Kevin Sherrer’s approach: The defense also has a different coordinator for the bowl, with Sherrer taking over for Jeremy Pruitt, now at Alabama. But Sherrer, unlike Lilly, knows he’s sticking around, one of two assistants set to be retained by Kirby Smart. Given the success of the defense this season, there isn’t much reason for Sherrer to change things, but could he be tempted – considering he’s invested in this program for 2016 – to experiment with some younger players? Probably not, although one change has already been forced upon him.
3. Inside linebacker: Junior Tim Kimbrough, a starter most of this season, is suspended for the game. That means freshman Natrez Patrick moves into a starting role, per McClendon, but fellow freshman Roquan Smith and Juwan Taylor could also see more playing time.
4. Running back intrigue: The depth in the backfield took another hit when Brendan Douglas was knocked out of the bowl with an injury and fullback Quayvon Hicks was on crutches at the team hotel on Sunday night. That would leave starter Sony Michel and also Keith Marshall, who will be playing his final game at Georgia, but hasn’t gotten extensive carries this season. And oh by the way running backs coach Thomas Brown is headed to join Mark Richt in Miami after the game. Penn State, by the way, had the nation’s 43rd-ranked run defense this season.
5. Focus and motivation: Many on the outside may deem this game irrelevant, and the talk from players about getting the seniors 40 career wins seems a bit of a stretch, motivation-wise. (Kolton Houston, the sixth-year senior offensive lineman, pointed out he would be credited with much more than that, 56.) But it’s a very good bet that the players and coaches left do have strong motivation this year. Or at least a different kind. McClendon may be leaving but he’s popular among his fellow coaches, who privately have expressed a desire to send him off with a 1-0 career record. And while it may be a skeleton crew of coaches left, and emotionally-hurt players, there should also be a strong desire to finish 10-3 and send a message to fans, media members – and UGA’s administration – about what is left of this Georgia team.