Riding waves of change challenges the Dawgs, and their fans

Kirby Smart’s program has seen a lot of player and coaching turnover since the Dawgs won the national championship. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh

All the change that has hit UGA football since the national championship win has some fans’ heads spinning.

At least, that’s the sense I get from social media and my Junkyard Mail. There have been wholesale changes to the coaching staff, and players departing, not just for the NFL, but also for the dreaded transfer portal (the name conjures up some scary interdimensional window from sci-fi stories).

The upheaval has some fans pining for the good ole days (which, on closer inspection, weren’t always so good).

We just won a natty, some wonder, so why would anyone want to leave?

Dawgs defender Jordan Davis hoists the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

Well, for coaches, there can be various reasons for switching jobs (like wanting to be closer to home), but, generally it’s part of career progression. Unless you’re the head coach (and especially a head coach at his alma mater, like Kirby Smart), a championship provides an entre to moving on up in the ranks. Coordinators dream of being head coaches; assistants want to be coordinators (and head coaches).

It’s business as usual, and not just a bunch of disloyal folks bailing on UGA. Just look at the wholesale staff changes Nick Saban has weathered after his Crimson Tide’s many title-winning seasons.

And, while Smart’s coaching staff has undergone drastic changes since the big game in Indy, Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, one of the key figures in Georgia’s recent success, remains in Athens (so far), though he reportedly is looking for more money and a contract extension. Let’s hope he gets both.

As for the players, yes, today’s landscape looks a lot different than what fans used to know and love. But, there always has been change, although admittedly not at the frantic pace we’ve come to know in the past decade.

Two weeks after Georgia defeated Alabama for the national title, UGA receiver Jermaine Burton announced his transfer to the Crimson Tide. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Hyosub Shin, Dawgnation

When I started watching the Dawgs (as almost nobody spelled it back then), freshmen spent a year on a separate team, and then generally played three years on the varsity before leaving. Occasionally, someone bolted a year early to play pro ball in Canada, or to grab big bucks flashed by some start-up league. But, those were the exceptions.

Gradually, however, change began remaking the college game. Freshmen started playing on the varsity (doing away with some great traditions, like the Thanksgiving Day Bullpups vs. Baby Jackets charity game). Then, the NFL changed its rules in 1990, to allow underclassmen to enter its draft, and teams started losing some of their star players after just three years (or even two, if you made the mistake of redshirting a spectacular player as a freshman; see Moreno, Knowshon).

More recently, the NCAA’s house of cards collapsed under the weight of its own byzantine, inconsistent and mostly indefensible rules restricting player movement, so the organization started granting a one-time waiver for student athletes to play immediately if they decided to transfer to another school, rather than having to sit out a year. “Free agency,” as some sneered, has come to college football.

That has spurred athletes seeking more playing time — or a chance to shine in a program better suited to improving their standing as an NFL prospect — to start bolting at season’s end, or even after spring practice. (That’s right, Georgia’s roster, which has seen so much change in the past month, probably will undergo more revisions after the G-Day game on April 16.)

Quarterback Brock Vandagrif is seen on G-Day last year. The Dawgs’ roster likely will see more change after this year’s spring game. (Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)
Andrew Davis Tucker, Dawgnation

The evaluating and ranking of high school prospects already had become a big business a couple of decades ago, and that has accelerated in recent years, with recruiting taking up more and more of coaches’ time and athletic departments’ resources (helicopters don’t come cheap).

And, with the courts giving players control of their own names, images and likenesses, some schools’ boosters are banding together in “collectives” to help prospects arrange lucrative endorsement deals before they’ve ever taken the field in college — which some coaches, including Georgia’s Smart, fret is bound to skew recruiting.

The NCAA has expressed concern (but likely won’t be able to do anything about it), and some fans don’t like it, either, but we might as well get used to it. NIL is not going away, and, as long as there are no national rules mandated by Congress, it’s a free market. (But, hey, starting this fall, Georgia fans finally will be able to buy jerseys with current players’ names on the back!)

All this change can be dizzying enough for those of us who follow our favorite teams from the stands (or, increasingly, from home via our large-screen TVs, since all games are telecast — another way the game has changed). But, imagine what a challenge it is for the coaching staffs (and their ever-growing cadre of off-field “analysts”) to manage their player personnel these days.

College football has evolved since the days when Bulldogs players Fran Tarkenton (left) and Pat Dye were coached by Wally Butts. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

So, no, today’s college football doesn’t much resemble the game we grew up with, but, then again, the game in the Vince Dooley days was a far cry from what my father grew up with in the Wally Butts era.

And, that’s a good thing; otherwise, Smart’s Dawgs might be wearing leather helmets, instead of playing for one hanging on a pedestal in Atlanta in September.

Besides, as President John F. Kenney said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

Change is what keeps things vital, in the nonsports world, as well. I bucked the trend by remaining with the same employer for 42½ years, joining the AJC straight out of UGA, and staying until I retired. But, even so, the business was changing constantly, with the arrival of computers to replace the IBM Selectrics that were on our desks when I first started (and which were, themselves, a drastic change from the old manual typewriters reporters had banged on for a couple of generations). And, then, the internet arrived, and the newspaper world turned upside down — not necessarily for the better, granted.

Even on a personal level, change was a constant in my career: I had 22 bosses and more than 15 different jobs during my time at the AJC.

Some parts of that I liked better than others, and the same is true for what’s happened to college football during the nearly 17 years I’ve written the Junkyard Blawg (which itself has gone through quite a few iterations, moving from one platform to another).

Also, while I wouldn’t peg it as a trend, even the breakneck speed with which change has been remaking the college game can ebb and flow. So it is that we learned this week that the College Football Playoff will be sticking with just four teams a little bit longer than some had expected. (Come to think of it, the playoff also has proved that not everything in the college game has changed all that much, as the same six or seven programs always seem to be in contention for its slots.)

Still, that mostly has been the exception. The ways in which the college game has changed, just in the time that Smart has been back in Athens, sometimes can seem mindboggling. Some changes have involved the game itself on a national basis, while others are more localized, like Picture Day going away, or no more printed programs on game day.

And, even though I understand that change is a natural part of the cycle of life, for us as well as our institutions, my family would tell you that I’m about as change-averse as any guy you’re likely to find. Once I find something I like, I tend to stick with it, despite my kids rolling their eyes about yet another of Dad’s “traditions.”

The same is true for me with football. I prefer listening to the Redcoats in the stands, rather than the cranked-up volume of the stadium DJ. I fear the growing cost of being a season ticket holder is going to lead to more and more fans experiencing football fandom remotely (which, no doubt, will itself lead to more changes at Sanford Stadium to enhance the fan experience).

DJ Shockley, seen scoring in 2005, had to wait for his one year as Georgia’s full-time starting quarterback. (AJC file)
Brant Sanderlin, Dawgnation

As for the game itself: Frankly, I liked it better back when college coaches could stockpile 5-star players at the skill positions (as Bobby Bowden was famous for doing at quarterback during FSU’s heyday). That made building a “dynasty” so much more predictable. At Georgia, it was great to have DJ Shockley, already an experienced backup, when the great David Greene graduated.

On the other hand, I recognize that such a situation wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of the players who had to bide their time for maybe one season as the starter — I expect Shockley would have loved to have had two or three years to shine as the Dawgs’ starting QB.

Still, the reality is that those days are long gone. Talented players chafe at standing on the sideline when they could be starting somewhere else. It’s not just QBs, either. Georgia’s had a pretty good run stockpiling ace linebackers in recent years, and, under Smart, the defense has done a good job of rotating players, so that lots of younger guys get playing time and experience, while the starters don’t wear out. However, in the portal age, there are limits to just how deep your roster can remain from one season to another.

Of course, the portal doesn’t just taketh away; it also has brought fresh talent to UGA, though, so far, the results on that have been mixed. Some transfers have proved to be invaluable additions to the program, while others have, for various reasons, not lived up to expectations (or have not even taken the field at all).

Another part of change is new talent arriving on campus, such as freshman quarterback Gunner Stockton. (DawgNation file)
DawgNation file, Dawgnation

So, college football fans no longer can count on their teams being able to keep talented backups, much less the starters, for more than a year or two. On the other hand, that can make a new season even more exciting.

And, that’s where having a relentless recruiter like Smart can make a huge difference. Programs where the recruiting is less of a juggernaut might be more prone to go from feast to famine (or, at least, mediocrity), but the chances of that happening at Georgia under Smart are pretty slim, I think.

Despite all the coming and going from the Georgia program, I believe the Bulldogs’ rise to the top of college football won’t be a once-every-41-years thing from now on.

And that’s one change I think we all can embrace.

Let me hear from you

I’ll answer some Junkyard Mail next weekend, so let me know what’s on your mind — whether it’s the changes I’ve written about today, the dire state of Georgia basketball, or what you’ll be looking for at this spring’s G-Day game, and in the upcoming football season. To make sure I see your comments and questions, email me directly at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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