For Georgia, is it a question of player leadership?
ATHENS – The most indelible image for Georgia football last season may be David Andrews running down the field late in a win over Auburn, pumping both arms in the air. His teammates followed close behind, because that’s what people did on last year’s team: They followed the senior center whose nickname was “Boss.”
There isn’t a similar image yet this year, because so far a new boss hasn’t emerged. Andrews is starting for an outfit called the New England Patriots. Other fiery leaders are gone from last year’s team, from Todd Gurley and Hutson Mason on offense to a large veteran core on defense.
That’s not to say there isn’t leadership on this year’s team. John Theus and Kolton Houston, two senior offensive linemen, rose to speak to the rest of the team this Monday, with the Bulldogs having lost two in a row.
But it was the first time this season that had happened at the Monday meeting. Meanwhile, the leader of the secondary is a sophomore, and the starting quarterback, normally a source of veteran leadership, is a transfer who joined the team in July. And while the team has fiery coaches – practically everyone on the defensive staff, for instance – nothing replaces the voice of a respected player.
Coach Mark Richt was asked Tuesday whether his team misses Andrews and some of the veteran leadership that was around last year.
“I think we have good leaders on this team. I think that we have some really solid seniors, especially. And there’s some other guys who are a little bit younger but experienced enough to have leadership qualities,” Richt said.
“But I think we as coaches have to help them understand that they have influence and understand — and maybe even help them infiltrate their energy into the team, and understand that they can influence these guys and they need to have faith and confidence that they can — and they need to be unified as they go about it. So those are some of the things that we work on with our guys.”
All this isn’t to tie Georgia’s recent struggles to lack of leadership. Everyone – from Richt to defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to players – have said it’s a matter of execution, not effort. But the word “focus” has also come up. And the problem in both of Georgia’s losses has been that when things went bad they went bad quickly:
The Alabama game was tied at 3 early in the second quarter. It was 24-3 by halftime. Georgia led Tennessee 24-3 midway through the second quarter. The Volunteers were back in it quickly and by the third quarter had a 31-24 lead.
“I know what you mean,” said linebacker Jake Ganus, who still pointed the blame in another direction. “I think Saturday was just us making too many mistakes. If you go back and watch the film, one drive we look like the best defense in the country. Then the next drive we look terrible, missing tackles, missing assignments, not communicating. So I just think as a defense we’ve gotta be more consistent, because I think as a defense we have a good group of players. I think we’re figuring it out.”
This year’s team does have some big voices. Seniors Jordan Jenkins and Josh Dawson are described as the two loudest on defense by fellow senior Sterling Bailey. But there are only four scholarship seniors on the two-deep on Georgia’s defense. Last year there were seven.
The secondary is the starkest example. Dominick Sanders, a sophomore, has already been put in a leadership role in a young secondary, which has already started two true freshmen and two other sophomores.
“We’re working on it,” Sanders said. “It’s not easy, but we all come together in the back end to work together in communication and executing.”
Another transfer, Ganus, is playing inside linebacker, a role that requires on-field leadership. Ganus was fiery at UAB and, as he continues to get comfortable, is trying to bring that to the Bulldogs.
“I tried to just slowly earn people’s respect, and as it went on, spring, summer and fall camp, now I’ve got myself in the role where I’m respected by everyone, and I can call people out, I can pick people up,” Ganus said. “It’s been fun. I’m glad I’m back in that role.”
Georgia’s offense has more experience to lean on, but not much. There’s Houston and Theus, as well as senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
But the starting quarterback, Greyson Lambert, is a transfer from Virginia who didn’t join the team until July. By all accounts Lambert is well-liked, but it’s not the same as when your quarterback has been around the team for five years, as was the case the past two years.
One of the biggest leaders in the offseason was quarterback Faton Bauta. But it’s tough to lead from third string.
Receiver Reggie Davis, a junior, granted that vocal leadership is “very important.” But like others, he said the issue doesn’t come down to energy, but the other “e” word.
“Usually when we’re down it’s not just one guy saying it, it’s the whole team. We’ve all been there, we know what to do,” Davis said. “So everyone remain calm, go down there and execute and play football.”