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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Culture Shock

I know this has already been discussed quite a bit, but the theme of this offseason for Georgia's football program isn't a whole lot different than the theme of last year's presidential campaign. It's all about change.

I remember watching the Republican National Convention and thinking it was odd and more than a bit awkward when a long list of conservatives lined up to tout John McCain's message of change without actually calling out the failures of George Bush. They acknowledged things needed to be different, but never wanted to implicitly place blame on the previous administration.

A similar demeanor seems to have emerged from this offseason for the Bulldogs. You can't find a player on the roster who will say that Matthew Stafford or Asher Allen or any of Georgia's departed veterans made mistakes last year. They won't tell you that those players cared less or didn't work as hard or weren't as concerned with winning. But what they will tell you is that last year's effort was lacking, last year's leadership was poor and this year things need to change. It doesn't take CNN's 43-person political coverage team to read between the lines there.

If you haven't been following the seemingly ubiquitous message of change coming from the Georgia locker room so far this offseason, Step 1 for you is to read this piece by Total UGA's Brett Jensen. Of all the players I've heard discuss last year's "leaders," I'm not sure anyone gave as damning a comment as tight end Aron White did.

"There's a lot more of a team mentality around right now," (White) said. "We're not focused on he's a star and we've got to go to him. We're more focused on everybody's got to work together and pull their own weight."

The truth is, last year, Georgia had plenty of stars. That's why the Dawgs started the season as the No. 1 team in the country. And really, there was no reason to criticize what those stars did on the field. Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno were exceptional, both playing with about as much heart on game day as you could possibly ask for while putting up impressive numbers behind a patchwork line. Guys like Asher Allen and Dannell Ellerbe had decent enough seasons, too, despite battling significant injuries along the way.

But it wasn't the on-field exploits that were missing last year. It was what happened in the six days leading up to the game. Again, no one has publicly criticized Moreno or Stafford or anyone else, but the simple act of praising this year's change speaks volumes.

I have a story in today's Telegraph that looks at Georgia's new message of change and like Jensen's story on White, the underlying criticisms of last year's team are pretty evident in the words of this year's players. Read it, and decide for yourself.

My story ended up around 1,200 words, which is a bit more than I generally like to put on a newspaper page. But getting it down to that size even took some painful decisions to leave quotes on the cutting room floor, so I wanted to use this space to give you the full breadth of player comments on the subject.

Earlier this week, I posted comments from linebacker Darryl Gamble about 2008's leadership issues, which are well worth a read if you haven't seen them already.

His quotes were simply the starting point, however. Below are quotes from 11 different players, which when added to Gamble and White, make more than a dozen who have spoken up with some degree of candor about last year's shortcomings. Here's what other Bulldogs have had to say this offseason...

Geno Atkins on the team's offseason attitude...
"Everybody's focused. Last season was a disappointment -- well, not really a disappointment, but we had higher expectations. This year we want to start from square one, from winter workouts to spring practice to summer workouts to fall camp."

Atkins on the team's top priorities this year...
"Better leaders, contributing, being more vocal telling young guys what to do, working hard. We're making sure no one's getting in trouble and things like that."

Bruce Figgins on the team's mentality this offseason...
"It's almost like a 180 turn. I sense a lot more focus and a lot more determination from players this year. From the highest to the lowest, from senior to freshman, everybody's coming in to work every day with a good attitude, motivated, pushing each other."

Figgins on what this season's workouts are like...
"There's a lot of energy in the weight room, a lot of energy in mat drills, and a lot of focus in the meeting rooms. It goes to the coaches as well. Coaches are constantly in the weight room, which since I've been here, I hadn't seen a lot of. It's almost like our position coaches are strength coaches as well. They're in there spotting, adding weight, and everybody's going above and beyond. It's a lot better attitude, and it's an attitude that I think if we had last year, we probably could have stayed No. 1."

Marcus Washington on what the team needs to improve...
"Guys doing wrong, you know they're doing wrong, you've got to get them on the right path. Last year we had a lot of off-the-field issues, guys getting arrested, guys getting in trouble, drinking, whatever. All that needs to be eliminated to be successful. I think that really hampered our season a little bit because guys always had these outside influences that made them not focus on the real task at hand, which is winning ballgames."

Washington on the progress being made...

"So far, but it's early in the year. You could say guys haven't really had time to mess up yet, but so far guys have learned and you take guys like Akeem Hebron for example had gotten dismissed for a semester, and now he's back doing things on the right path. With that situation, experience is the best teacher. He had to learn the hard way. Sometimes that's what it takes. I think our guys learned from their mistakes."

Kris Durham on the attitude this year...

"It's been very intense. They're pushing a lot of team first, team everything, just kind of that nobody's going to outwork us this offseason. We're going to be the best conditioned, best strength we can possibly have."

Durham on what the problems were last season...

"We kind of just lost our way for a bit. We got our mind-set back and got ready for the bowl game, and we need to build off that. We've just got to stay focused this year. We can't help what happened in the past."

Bryan Evans on this year's workouts...

"We're wasting no time. I think this might be the hardest we've ever worked coming out of a December into January. Specifically, the tempo is much faster. Strength and conditioning coaches are hands on. They broke the workout groups down to six people in each position so they can focus more on us."

Evans on the team's motivation from last year's losses...
"I feel that the score of 49-10 speaks for itself. Nobody wants to feel that 49-10 again. That's pretty much what everybody is thinking about -- 49-10, every time we get in the weight room. If that doesn't drive you, I don't know what will."

Blair Walsh on the team's goals this offseason...
"We're trying to get some new leadership in here, and people want to get back to the BCS."

Prince Miller on the coaches' attitudes this offseason...
"The coaches are definitely pushing us more, and it's only for the best of the team. They just want us to be one of those elite programs in the country, and 10 wins just isn't good enough anymore. That's what you have going on now. The coaches are really pushing us to move this program forward."

Miller on scheduling...
"The schedule's going to be tough every year, especially playing in the SEC and having a hard non-conference schedule. I think that happened a little too much last year. A lot of people, not just the guys who play, but people in general were looking ahead too much at what might be and what could happen, and that's something we can't get caught up in."

Joe Cox on whether there was a lack of passion last year...
"Maybe at certain times. Now is it something that I feel that if I would have been in it would have been changed? No. But I felt like at times, and really throughout my career, you can see certain games where it just seemed like we were flat. We just needed somebody or something to spark it, and hopefully I can bring the way I like to play, hopefully that can change some things and maybe bring some fire to us."

Zach Mettenberger on what is different this year from last...
"Last year I was around a lot, and the leadership wasn't too great last year. I've been here three weeks and I can already tell that the leadership and the seniors, they want to win a championship again. They want an SEC championship. They want a spot to play for the national title. So far, the leadership has been outstanding in my opinion."

Tony Wilson on the changes the coaching staff has made this offseason...
"That's what they felt like they needed to do to change the program around, and I'm here to do it, so I've got to deal with it. Some of the stuff I don't agree with, but it is what it is. I've got to just take it with a grain of salt."

Wilson on why he doesn't like some of the changes...

"I always believed that an athlete needs rest. That's not to say that the coaches don't know what they're doing but it's just my thought that, if I worked hard in track, for example, if I practice the first two days hard, and I've got a track meet Thursday, I would take Wednesday to rest my body so I can be able to physically and mentally perform. But they're doing what they think is right, and I don't question any of it, but I just go with the flow and go in with a positive mind-set."

Wilson on last year's leadership problems...
"Leadership is a skill. You can't force it on nobody, just like you can't force talent on them. You're either given it or your not. When you become a leader, that's a big step in someone's life. Being a leader is totally different than going out and pulling guys off to the side because they want you to be more vocal. A lot of people aren't used to being like that. Certain people are made for that, certain people might not be. Some people can be vocal, some lead by their actions. Me, in particular, I don't get into nobody's face and say do this or do that because I don't like when people do that to me. You can come in here and pull me to the side and talk to me and say, 'You need to do this,' but if you're up in my face, I'm not going to respect you. I don't respect nobody who gets up in my face. Another example is if he tells you to do one thing, but you see him doing another thing. He's telling you to do it this way, but he's doing something else on the other side of the room, I don't respect that. If I'm going to be a leader, I'm going to be a leader morning, noon and night, on campus or off campus. Leaders, there's something you've got to develop within yourself."

(Note from me: I can't help but read a bit more into this line from Wilson: "If he tells you to do one thing, but you see him doing another thing.He's telling you to do it this way, but he's doing something else onthe other side of the room, I don't respect that." Combine that with some of the quotes from other players, including White in Total UGA's article, about how some guys didn't think they needed to put in as much effort, and I think you start to get a picture of why some of the "leaders" had trouble leading.)

Rennie Curran on the lessons of last season...
"I feel like we learned a lot about ourselves and just the fact that we needed to have more discipline if we wanted to be the best -- to work hard, to always be the best in every drill --- and that's kind of what we've implemented from the very beginning, from the end of last game to now, we're just working hard, everybody being disciplined, working on leadership -- all those things that make a good team great. It's only going to get more intense as we put the pads on and get ready to go. There's a lot of talented guys that are ready to contribute."

Curran on trying to motivate a team that isn't buying in...

"It definitely can get frustrating but that's one thing that you have to realize that things aren't always going to go your way, but you have to be persistent -- especially in the league that we play in and the type of guys we have. You just have to be persistent and hope everybody can get on the same page, but I have no worries about that this year because I feel like we've got a great group of guys that want to do things right and want to buy into the program, and that's going to translate into good things."

7 comments:

NCT said...

Cox: "We just needed somebody or something to spark it, and hopefully I can bring the way I like to play, hopefully that can change some things and maybe bring some fire to us."

Um, ok. "Sparky"?

Good work, David. It seems we (probably every team's fans) hear every year about the ramped up commitment, but it does seem a bit more than usual this year.

NCT said...

One more thought. I don't suppose NFL types care much about what former college teammates say when evaluating talent.

Dawgfan1307 said...

Thanks for the insight David. I agree with the quote that the players haven't really had the time to screw up. Wait til the spring practice/semester is over, we can start to judge the difference between this year's and last year's leadership then.

Also, will you have any insight to how the players at the combine are doing, being rated, etc.

Thanks again for the hard work.

Anonymous said...

Wow - It would be nice to hear how the coaches are preparing differently this year.

David Hale said...

To answer your questions -- I'm planning on doing a story talking to some of the coaches about the workouts this year and getting a more details version of "mat drills" for you this coming week.

As for the combine stuff, I just haven't had time to get any of that info first hand, but I'm hoping to catch up with Asher, Corvey, Mo and/or Brannan next week. Having to now go through agents rather than UGA's sports info dept makes things a bit tougher.

If you check around some of the other blogs, there have been some good combine stuff written, most recently this post over at Bernie's on Brannan Southerland: http://berniesdawgblawg.blogspot.com/2009/02/brannan-southerland-pancakes-dives-and.html

Meat said...

I don't know how I feel about this. I know I didn't know either Stafford or Knowshon but I just get the feeling that they are becoming the scapegoat of last year's dissapointing season. Sure, they're working harder this offseason. There is no better motivation than losing. But you'll have a hard time convincing me that Knowshon Moreno didn't do everything in his power to be the best teammate he could be.

cousinwalter said...

Good Work, David. That is a long list of quotes. They even got the freshmen QB drinking the kool aide so to speak. Sometimes playing with a chip on your shoulder is a good thing.

I don't think its fair to make Knowshon Moreno a scape goat for last season. The numbers that he put up considering the injuries on the offensive line are pretty impressive- over 1300 yards rushing. He had to work much harder in 2008 for the same amount of yards he amassed in 2007.

Another big difference in last season and 2007 was that in 07 there was a 1-2 punch with Moreno and Brown that totaled over 2000 yards. This season that was not the case even slightly. Knowshon was not slacking at all when he stepped out for a play or two. Its just that there was no Thomas Brown to help him shoulder the work load. I think we took TB for granted.