Georgia coping with the flip side of success
Published: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 4:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 4:01 p.m.
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - A week ago, the Georgia Bulldogs were savoring the winningest season in school history, topped off by a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State. Now, it's time to start rebuilding _ a job that got even bigger this week.
Three underclassmen _ running back Musa Smith, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and linebacker Chris Clemons _ decided to enter the NFL draft a year early.
"You can't dwell on what's gone," All-American defensive end David Pollack said Thursday. "You've got to focus on what you have. I'm sure we'll be fine. We've just got to reload."
Reloading will be a daunting task for the Bulldogs, who went 13-1, won their first Southeastern Conference championship since 1982 and finished third nationally.
Eight starters on offense have played their final game, including the entire line. Four starters on defense must be replaced, including all three linebackers.
Coach Mark Richt has been through this before. A year ago, defensive end Charles Grant, tight end Randy McMichael and safety Terreal Bierria left school after their junior seasons.
"When Charles Grant left, we moved Pollack to the edge and he came through," Richt said. "Now, some other guys are going to have to come through. A lot of guys are waiting for their opportunity. They're going to get it."
Richt wasn't surprised that Smith and Sullivan entered the NFL draft, though he said "both of them could have possibly improved their draft status" by returning to school for another year.
Smith was the first Georgia running back since 1992 to eclipse 1,000 yards, rushing for 1,179 during the regular season and 145 in a 26-13 victory over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. He made the All-SEC team and was MVP of the bowl game.
Sullivan, another All-SEC selection, was a dominating presence in the middle of Georgia's line. He drew plenty of double teams and helped to free up Pollack on the outside.
"You can't replace a Johnathan Sullivan," Pollack said. "He's a great player who brings a lot to the table. ... We've got guys behind him who are capable. We'll see how they handle it, see how much they grow up."
Clemons was a total surprise, going pro over Richt's objections. The outside linebacker started 10 games during the regular season, making 49 tackles.
"These guys need to do what they think is best," Richt said. "But the thing I'm most concerned about is do they have enough of the right information, from all sides."
While Sullivan was a defensive stalwart, he may be the easiest to replace. Junior Ken Veal and freshmen Kedric Golston and Darrius Swain also started on the interior line last season.
The loss of Smith appears tougher to cope with because he got the ball on nearly half of the team's running plays. Redshirt freshman Tony Milton (314 yards) was the only other tailback to get extensive carries, but Richt isn't ready to guarantee him a starting job.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he does, but everything remains to be seen," the coach said.
The Bulldogs have some other running back candidates. Freshmen Tyson Browning ran for 111 yards and Michael Cooper, who sat out a redshirt season, looked impressive in bowl workouts.
Also, Kregg Lumpkin, one of the top-rated prep running backs in the country, had verbally committed to Georgia. Richt also is pursuing Ernie Sims of Tallahassee, Fla., a running back-linebacker ranked No. 1 by some recruiting services.
Whoever wins the tailback job will be running behind a line that has five new starters, but that situation may not be as dire as it seems.
The Bulldogs began grooming replacements during the season, giving extensive playing time to redshirt freshman Russ Tanner and freshmen Max Jean-Gilles, Josh Brock and Bartley Miller.
Clemons' surprising decision to leave wiped out the entire starting linebacker corps. Seniors Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey were the top two tacklers.
"It always hurts to lose those kinds of players," Richt said. "Their leadership, their talent, their knowledge of what you're doing, those things are hard to replace."
Still, Pollack scoffed at the notion Georgia would be in for some tough times.
"They said the same thing about us last year: 'Oh, they've got so many guys leaving. How are they going to do it?'" he recalled. "We might not have a team like the one this year, but we might have a team that's better than that."
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article