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Monday, December 29, 2008

Looking Back No. 3: Lots of Pain, No Gain

By midseason, it had become some sort of twisted joke. Injuries happen every season, but Georgia's coaches and trainers had never seen anything like this.

The bad luck started early. Brannan Southerland thought his foot had completely healed from offseason surgery and was set to return to action in June. Then the news came: The injury hadn't healed. He would need another surgery -- and another three months of rehab.

Barely a week of fall camp was in the books before the list of injured players had grown exponentially. Quintin Banks sprained an MCL to further deplete a young group of safeties. Defensive ends were dropping like flies. And then there was the most devastating news -- left tackle Trinton Sturdivant tore multiple knee ligaments and would miss the season.

As bad as it seemed as Georgia prepped to open the year in late August, things would get much worse.

Star defensive tackle Jeff Owens blew out his knee on Georgia's first series of the season, missing the year. Rod Battle missed three games with a nagging neck injury. Tavarres King suffered an ankle injury against Arizona State that ended his season. The list went on and on, and for much of the season, the number of green non-contact jerseys on the practice field nearly outnumbered the quantity of healthy players.

"We've got a green team, and I think the green team could play against the red team and we'd be successful," Owens said.

Tripp Chandler went down against Alabama, leaving Georgia with a depth chart at tight end that looked to include Aron White and no one else, thanks in part to a shoulder injury Bruce Figgins had suffered a week earlier. At one point, Georgia moved Kiante Tripp, who had been filling in for Sturdivant, from tackle to tight end just to ensure there was a backup at the position.

Preseason All-SEC linebacker Dannell Ellerbe hurt his knee and missed three games. He joined a laundry list of linebackers to miss time in 2008, one that included Charles White, Akeem Hebron, Darius Dewberry and Darryl Gamble.

"This year has been different because not only do we have a lot of injuries but they've been congregating at certain key positions, particularly the tackles and the tight ends, and that can be problematic."

In all, Georgia suffered 22 season-ending injuries, and by head coach Mark Richt's count, 16 were to players who were set to play significant roles on the team. That number, however, doesn't include the litany of nagging injuries that players managed to play through but never were able to perform at 100 percent. A trickle-down effect from all the injuries managed to touch virtually every player on the roster in one way or another.

"A lot of times these injuries, you might be healthy enough to practice or play, but you miss all that time in the weight room, you miss all those fundamentals, it's hard to roll back in there and play great," Richt said. "It's just hard."

Of course, just how much different Georgia's season may have played out had the team remained relatively healthy is impossible to say. Alabama led 31-0 at the half, and it's doubtful Owens or Sturdivant could have changed that. Florida beat the Bulldogs by 39, and even a healthier pass rush wouldn't have changed that outcome.

For their part, the Bulldogs aren't spending much time wondering what might have been anyway.

"I don't like getting into the woulda, coulda, shoulda situations because every team has them," said wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, the only senior to start every game on offense this season. "We didn't do what it took to get to where we wanted to be."

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