So after Georgia’s loss to Alabama last month, he instituted a new rule at practice: If you commit a penalty, you pay the price immediately in the form of up-downs and gassers.
Richt didn’t want to play the role of judge and jury, however, so he told his players to police themselves. If you made a mistake, own up to it. If the player next to you does, call him out.
“They kind of had a little fun with it, busting each other’s chops,” Richt said.
It wasn’t all in fun. Linebacker Rennie Curran said it was really part of a major turning point in Georgia’s season.
From calling out penalties to correcting bad routes to dispensing advice in the film room, several of Georgia’s key players have taken in on a more vocal role to ensure their teammates are performing at their best. While that isn’t dramatically different than most years at Georgia, this season it took a while longer before those leaders emerged.
Early in the season, it was usually the coaches who made corrections, not players. When lessons needed to be taught in the film room, coaches often gave the explanations. When someone was slacking off during workouts, it was the coaches who yelled.
And that’s how the season was progressing until Georgia headed to its locker room at halftime against Alabama, trailing by 31 points and wondering what had happened to the team that started the season atop the polls.
“After the loss, it was time for me to step up and speak and tell how it is,” said senior defensive end Jeremy Lomax, who gave an impassioned speech after the Alabama game in hopes of rallying his teammates through the rest of the season. “After that loss, it put everything into perspective.”
Lomax wasn’t the only player to have swallowed his words through the early part of the season, but he was a perfect example of the stumbling blocks the Bulldogs had in finding vocal leaders.
Until this year, Lomax had never started a game. In preseason camp, he battled a turf toe injury and spent much of August in a green non-contact jersey. He simply didn’t feel it was his place to criticize another player when he hadn’t gotten the job done either.
“A lot of times you’ve got to earn the respect of your teammates before you start trying to correct somebody,” Richt said. “They’re like, ‘Well, I’m not perfect, so I have no right to say something to them.’ But they do, especially when it comes to effort and things like that.”
Despite a roster filled with talent, Georgia’s locker room was thin on age and wisdom.
Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and safety CJ Byrd are the only seniors on Georgia’s roster to start all seven games this season, an unusual twist for a top-10 team.
Richt said the Bulldogs have an established tradition of honoring their seniors with leadership roles, but this season, Georgia’s biggest names weren’t part of its senior class, and many simply weren’t comfortable making their voices heard.
“Coming into this year, I guess they never established vocally their roles,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “They were making plays on the field, but just not vocally. Rennie, he was always a talkative guy, so he just took that on himself.”
After the loss to Alabama, Curran was among the first to step up.
While stars like Knowshon Moreno and Geno Atkins have notoriously understated personalities, Curran’s broad smile, intense work ethic and mile-a-minute conversation style made him an obvious candidate for the role.
“He even spoke up last year before he was even starting,” fullback Brannan Southerland said. “He’s a great football player, a great leader, a great person. I think people listen to him because everyone knows he plays as hard as he can and leaves everything on the field.”
It wasn’t that other players weren’t working hard, Curran said. It was just that many of the players in key roles were still learning what to do, making it tough to teach their teammates further down the depth chart.
“At the end of the day, we had to realize that we’re going to be the ones representing each other,” Curran said. “The coaches aren’t going to be on the field with us on Saturday. We’re all we have, so we have to want to see the best in each other.”
That’s what spurred on defensive tackle Corvey Irvin, too.
Like Lomax, Irvin didn’t begin the year as a starter. He landed the job only after one of Georgia’s true senior leaders – Jeff Owens – went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Off the field, Owens had been the backbone of the Bulldogs’ defense, and there may not have been a more talkative player in the locker room. Once the injury removed his voice from the practice field, however, Irvin decided to fill the void.
“I really didn’t see it from nobody else,” Irvin said. “Geno, he’s a quiet guy, Kade (Weston) is a quiet guy, DeAngelo (Tyson) is a freshman. I’m a senior, I played a lot last year, and I looked up to Jeff and saw the things he did, so I just took after him and tried to do the same thing.”
Owens was one of several seniors to suffer a serious injury. All-SEC linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has missed the past two games, as has senior tight end Tripp Chandler. Wide receiver Kenneth Harris sat out two games earlier this season. Southerland, a four-year starter, missed the first five games of the year after two surgeries on his foot during the offseason.
That left a dearth of veterans on the team, and the few who remained have been forced into a more prominent role.
Massaquoi took freshman receiver A.J. Green under his wing over the summer, and Green has blossomed into the SEC’s top receiver. After the loss to Alabama, Massaquoi challenged the rest of the Bulldogs to take similar steps.
“What separates a lot of teams is their leadership and how hard guys are doing their work,” Massaquoi said. “So I told the guys, we don’t get too many more opportunities to play on the collegiate level, so we know we have to go out there and lead by example and be more vocal and hopefully the guys will follow.”
Sophomore cornerback Vance Cuff is one of the many young Bulldogs getting their first taste of playing time this season, and he said he has relied on the leadership of teammates like Asher Allen to get by.
Early in the year, he said advice was given if asked for – something he did often. These days, however, directions and corrections are distributed on the spot.
“It’s sad to see that a loss made us step up like that, but that put a light under our tails,” Cuff said. “You can hear it in the weight room, the film room, older guys, younger guys, just the time between classes. The leadership is just stepping up.”
The results have been evident on the field. There’s still more work to do, but the Bulldogs have won two straight since falling to Alabama and have looked impressive in doing it.
And those penalties have been cut, too. The Bulldogs were thrilled to learn no extra calisthenics would be in order after they committed just five penalties against Vanderbilt. It was proof the new style of leadership was working.
“We’re putting all this work in, and our reward is game day,” Curran said. “I feel like we stay on each other for that purpose. We’re definitely getting to be more of a player-driven team, and it’s making a difference.”