#1 Dawgs start practice amid "distractions"

ATHENS – The sun beat down across the practice fields at the Georgia on Monday afternoon, bringing the heat index to more than 100 degrees.

Players limped, panted, poured sweat and gasped for breath throughout their first drills of the preseason.

Coaches screamed out directions, then yelled at the players who screwed them up.

For the Georgia Bulldogs, getting back to work never felt so good.

Following a tumultuous offseason filled with arrests, suspension and turmoil, the chance to get back on the field and simply worry about playing football was a welcome one for the top-ranked Bulldogs.

"That happened in the summer," said defensive tackle Jeff Owens. "This is the fall now, so it's behind us."

Well, sort of.

While 105 players took to the practice field Monday to kick off the 2008 season, snapper Jeff Henson and safety Donavon Baldwin were not among them, both suspended indefinitely by head coach Mark Richt last weekend.

Defensive end Michael Lemon wasn't on the field either. He was dismissed from the team after a Georgia student claimed he'd been attacked by Lemon in July.

Right guard Clint Boling will be suspended for the first game of the season after pleading guilty to a reckless driving charge, and Richt announced Monday that linebacker Darius Dewberry would miss the first two games for destroying property at a local hospital.

"It's certainly been a distraction," Richt said. "There's no way you can say it hasn't been a distraction because it has been. But we have to realize, No. 1, it's not every guy on that team. No. 2, the ones that have misbehaved are paying the price for it."

The legal troubles have soured what should have been a banner beginning to the season for Georgia. With 16 starters returning from a team that finished last season with seven straight wins and a Sugar Bowl victory, the Bulldogs earned a No. 1 preseason ranking in the USA Today's coaches' poll.

But on Day 1, the players and coaches spent more time discussing the players who weren't there than they did talking about the national title aspirations for the players who were.

"Any time something like that happens, it's not a positive thing for anybody," Richt said. "The reputation of this team has been damaged, no question. I don't think it's beyond repair, but it certainly has taken some hits."

Last weekend, Baldwin, Lemon and Dewberry were all caught up in the aftermath of a bar fight in downtown Athens, with Baldwin and linebacker Marcus Dowtin suffering injuries that required treatment at a local hospital. In a separate incident, Henson was arrested on alcohol-related charges, just seven months after another arrest for driving under the influence.

The chaos of the weekend especially haunted Richt, who said he had considered starting preseason practice Saturday, but decided to give coaches and players one last weekend to enjoy the offseason instead.

"It turned out to be a bad situation as far as giving them another week of freedom," Richt said.

When practice finally did begin, the players put up a strong front of solidarity. Richt, however, seemed personally affected.

Each time he received one of the now numerous phone calls that a player was in trouble, Richt said he was sickened. And for a coach who abides by strong religious beliefs, finding a proper balance between punishment and support has proved difficult.

"The first time a young man has a situation, and you throw him out of the house, it's hard to help a guy once he's gone," Richt said. "Once a guy gets to Georgia, they're mine, they're ours. We're gonna love them, we're gonna teach them, we're gonna train him and we're gonna discipline him, just like we would our own children."

Dewberry's suspension serves as a prime example of the difficulties of dealing with the off-field problems, Richt said.

The junior linebacker admitted to damaging property at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens after Henson and Dowtin were hurt last weekend. It was a moment of anger and poor judgment, Dewberry said. But in the wake of so many other incidents for Bulldogs players, Dewberry was clearly in the crosshairs of the media.

Still, Richt stood behind his player.

"I don't believe in throwing that guy under the bus to try to stave off the wolves," Richt said. "I don't think that's fair to that guy. Dewberry's an example. I don't think I should throw Dewberry off the football team."

So Dewberry was at practice Monday, running drills with teammates and focusing on his start to the season, which will come in Week 3 against South Carolina.

It took an act of forgiveness from his head coach for Dewberry to be on the field, which may have been an excellent symbol for what Monday's practice was all about.

The sweltering weather helped to melt away the distractions. The coaches barking orders served as a perfect reminder that the old football routine was back. The playbook now superceded the headlines in terms of required reading for Georgia's players.

"Coming in off the summer where you can't talk to your coaches, you can't be practicing, you can't do a lot of stuff," quarterback Matt Stafford said, "it's good to get back, good to get together and realize you're a team, and you're all pulling for each other."

Dawg Post Top Stories