ATHENS — Georgia will be down one more full-time assistant coach when bowl practice commences on Wednesday.
Mike Ekeler, who has served the Bulldogs as inside linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator the last two seasons, confirmed Tuesday that he’ll be leaving the program. Ekeler is pursuing another position elsewhere as a defensive coordinator.
“I’m not going to be able to coach in the bowl game,” Ekeler said. “I feel terrible as far as the players go. I love those kids; they’re great kids. But looking out for your family, sometimes you have to do things. If you don’t have a job, you have to get the job. That’s just the economics of the situation.”
Jeremy Pruitt, UGA’s defensive coordinator the past two seasons, left Friday to become defensive coordinator at Alabama. That leaves only defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer to coach the Bulldogs’ defense in the TaxSlayer Bowl Jan. 2 in Jacksonville. Sherrer will serve as defensive coordinator.
Georgia returns to the practice field on Wednesday. Ekeler did not know who might fill in for him on the practice field. The Bulldogs could elevate one of its defensive quality-control specialists.
Ekeler and his family — wife Barbie and children J.J., Cameryn, Abigail and Bella — have been on the move a lot the last few years. Since leaving Nebraska in 2010, the Ekelers were at Southern Cal for one year before coming to Athens in the winter of 2014. A native Nebraskan and Kansas State letterman, Ekeler has also worked at Oklahoma, LSU and Nebraska.
“We’ve been all over the country, and I’ll tell you what: I’m going to shed a bunch of tears leaving this place,” Ekeler said. “Athens is such an unbelievable town and our neighborhood is phenomenal, all the people here are just amazing. It’s the best place we’ve ever lived and it’s not even close. It’s been awesome.”
Ekeler was known for the passion and energy he brought to the field and especially to the sidelines during games. He would jump and chest bump players after they made plays, especially on special teams, where Ekeler excelled as college player at Kansas State. He infamously knocked nearly unconscious Georgia player Rico McGraw with a helmet slap after Isaiah McKenzie’s touchdown return in the Auburn game.
Ekeler’s departure seemed imminent. He had not been among the Georgia assistants on the road recruiting or attending any of the team functions.
“I love these players,” Ekeler said. “They’re good kids and they all know how I feel about them. But I’m ready to go my own way and lead the right way and teach these kids and develop them.”