Thurman talks about suspension

ATHENS — Instead of answering questions about expectations or attitudes on the first day of the 2004 season, Georgia's football players were answering for teammate Odell Thurman.

Thurman, the Bulldogs' starting middle linebacker and an All-American candidate, was suspended Sunday for the first three games of the season.

The story dominated Monday as Georgia held its first practice.

"It's going to hurt us, there's no way around it, but football is a team game," quarterback David Greene said. "There are a lot of people on that field. Hopefully, somebody will step up and play great.

"We don't even know what happened, but I know whatever it was, he wasn't trying to get suspended for three games. I'm disappointed in what happened, but I'm not mad at Odell."

Coach Mark Richt declined to say what rule Thurman broke, but said he never considered dismissing the junior from the team despite a history of disciplinary issues. Richt kicked Thurman off the team in 2002, sending him to Georgia Military College in hopes of changing his attitude. Thurman drew high praise upon his return, but found trouble again last August when he was arrested on five misdemeanor counts stemming from a traffic stop.

"I think Odell has come a long way, quite frankly," Richt said. "He's put some very good quality time in since he was at GMC. He made some great strides, but he slipped up and now he has to pay for it."

Thurman, a graduate of Monticello High School, also declined to discuss his misconduct except to say it happened weeks ago and Richt told him the punishment Sunday.

"I made a mistake," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can from here to Oct. 2 to help the team any way I can. I want to apologize to my teammates, family and fans and to the whole Bulldog Nation — tell them I'm sorry for making mistakes. Hopefully, they'll look at it like I do more good things than bad things."

Thurman, who said he felt his punishment was fair, will practice with the team throughout his suspension and also will have to complete unspecified internal team punishment. If he meets all the requirements imposed by Richt, he will return in time for Georgia's Oct. 2 game against LSU.

Junior Derrick White will take Thurman's spot at middle linebacker, leaving the weakside starting job to Danny Verdun Wheeler of Thomson, Richt said. White started three games last year and had 36 tackles.

Verdun Wheeler started two games and had 14 tackles.

"You can't whine about it, we've got what we've got," senior defensive end David Pollack said. "Everybody is replaceable. Every single guy. People have to step up, we have to make plays."

Thurman's absence, coupled with a season-ending knee injury suffered by Tony Taylor in the spring, leaves plenty of opportunities for freshmen in Georgia's linebacking corps. True freshmen Josh Johnson and Brandon Miller already are second team, with Johnson backing up White in the middle and Miller behind Arnold Harrison on the strongside.

Sophomore Jarvis Jackson is the top backup on the weakside, just ahead of Marcus Howard. True freshmen Brannan Southerland is the third-teamer in the middle. Southerland was recruited as a fullback but has been moved to linebacker, at least temporarily.

"We'll just see how it plays out," Richt said. "He may stay there his whole career, he may not."

Among the true freshmen, Johnson seems the most ready to contribute right away, but it's impossible to tell for sure until the players spend some time on the field, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. While White will be charged with filling Thurman's physical spot, Harrison will take up the leadership slack, VanGorder said.

"It's just like your brother, he does something bad, you feel bad for him," said Harrison, a senior. "I just hope I can hold it in the road until he gets back. Hopefully, we can get something out of one or two freshmen."

The Bulldogs have experience dealing with suspenions. Last year, eight players were suspended for at least the season-opener and three starters missed at least that game due to injury.

This season, Georgia is expected to miss only Thurman, fullback Jeremy Thomas (two games) and punter Gordon Ely-Kelso (one game).

"I think the team is fine. We've been through this kind of thing before," Richt said. "It gives everybody confidence that if so-and-so is not there for any reason, then somebody else can step up and play well."

Despite the somber tone of the day's biggest story, the player's spirits seemed high as they took the field for a two-and-a-half hour workout Monday afternoon.

"The air's still in the balloon," running back Kregg Lumpkin said. "Everybody is still excited about the first day."

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