Bubba becoming a vocal leader

ATHENS – It had been four years since anyone on Georgia's football team had called Fernando Velasco by his given name, and he was beginning to wonder.

"Sometimes, I didn't know if the coaches knew my real name," said Velasco, the Bulldogs' senior center. "Everybody was calling me Bubba. Now it's Fernando. That's cool. I like it."

The day Velasco first set foot on the practice field, a teammate decided he looked like the character Bubba Blue from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, and the name stuck instantly.

Last week, head coach Mark Richt pointed out that he'll be using Fernando from now on.

"Fernando, sir," Richt added.

Velasco, who is emerging as the most vital piece of Georgia's rebuilt offensive line this spring, has earned that measure of respect in the last four seasons. The 6-foot-4, 328-pound Jefferson County High School product has had to shift his thinking many a time for the team, including in 2005, when he made a rare and, frankly, embarrassing move.

In his first two years, Velasco provided depth at guard, and he appeared ready to increase that contribution heading into his junior year. That's when Richt and then-offensive line coach Neil Callaway approached him with a suggestion that was tough to swallow: take a year off, redshirt, work with the scout team and then return with two years of eligibility in 2006.

It's almost unheard of for players to take a redshirt season in the middle of their careers for any reason other than injury.

"I think he at first didn't like it, he maybe didn't understand it," Richt said.

Velasco confirms that he wasn't happy initially, but he began to see the logic in the move quickly, and now he's happy he made it. If he hadn't, he would have exhausted his eligibility last season and would be preparing for the NFL Draft right now.

"Today I would say that's the best decision I've made in my life," Velasco said. "I'm glad I did it. I've gotten the opportunity to get my degree, I matured a lot, and I look forward to a great senior season. Once I understood it and bought into it, I just had fun. After that I was the biggest cheerleader on the sideline, just encouraging my teammates on, just doing whatever was best for the team, playing on scout team or whatever else I can do."

That take-one-for-the-team attitude has served Velasco well this year as he makes two significant changes, one in position and one in demeanor.

Georgia had hoped to have Velasco at guard this season and leave center to a less experienced player. First-year offensive line coach Stacy Searels listed Velasco as the starting left guard on the team's pre-spring depth chart.

"Coach Searels was just looking at body types and all that kind of thing," Richt said. "I said, ‘Coach my prediction is Fernando is going to have to be (at center)' because any line coach has got to have some stability right at that center position."

(It's impossible for most to know how Searels feels about his center. The Bulldogs' first-year offensive line coach has refused to speak to members of the media since the first week of spring practice.)

Velasco had been moved to center by the first spring practice.

"I pretty much knew I was going to do that since the end of the season last year so I had a chance to think about it through the offseason," Velasco said. "I just knew if that's what I had to do to help the team, that's what I had to do."

What has been more difficult for Velasco is making the switch from a behind-the-scenes guy to a vocal leader. In the last four years, his voice was barely heard on the practice field. This season, it's the only one carries from the offensive line group, which has surprised Richt.

"I knew he was a great kid," Richt said. "I knew he could communicate, but I'd never seen that from him until this year. It's really fantastic."

There was no choice for Velasco other than to step out of his shell, both the player and coach said.

"Sometimes if you've got a group of seniors and a bunch of fourth-year juniors on that line, you may not see yourself as a leader, but he's looking around and he's seeing a bunch of puppies around him so he knows if we're going to have any success, he's going to have to do good job of leading," Richt said.

Velasco and Chester Adams are the only seniors among the group, which will feature 11 players who have never seen Division I-A action.

"In the past I've never been the rah-rah type of lineman, but as I look around the offensive line, there's only two seniors," he said. "I just feel that it's my obligation to the team I just need to step up and be a leader and try to lead all these young guys. If they have any questions, they can come ask me and I try to be there for them."

NOTE: Former Georgia players David Pollack, Hines Ward, Will Witherspoon and Jon Stinchcomb will serve as guest coaches for Saturday's G-Day game. Pollack and Ward will be on the red team, while Witherspoon and Stinchcomb will be on the black sideline.

"During the fall, we have former players come back to serve as honorary captains at homes games," Richt said in a statement released by the school. "We thought it would be a good idea to initiate a tradition to also have players as guest coaches at G-Day. We're thrilled these guys are coming."

Tickets for the game are $5 for adults and $3 for high school age and younger. Tickets will go on sale starting at 12:30 p.m. at the gate below Sanford Bridge, as well as gates 2, 4 and 6.

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