Going Above and Beyond

ATHENS – Once the word was uttered, he quickly corrected himself, but when Geno Atkins called last season a disappointment, it was more than a simple slip of the tongue.

No one wanted to devalue Georgia's 10-3 season in 2008, but there was little doubt the Bulldogs had hoped for more.

And it wasn't so much about the record. It was about the attitude. Georgia wasn't just a runner up in the standings. It was second in effort, too.

Leadership was lacking, the work ethic suffered, and the losses were simply a symptom of a greater problem. That has been the recurring explanation from more than a dozen players since the 2008 season ended, and just one month into preparation for 2009, a new attitude seems to have developed in the Georgia locker room.

"A lot of things have changed with the culture around here," linebacker Darryl Gamble said. "Pretty much everything that's going on around here is new, so even the older guys will be like, ‘What's going on right now?'"

It started with the basics – simple schedule changes, more contact with coaches, tougher workouts.

A year ago, injuries devastated the Bulldogs' roster. While more than 20 players are still hobbled and unable to fully participate in the team's offseason training, the coaching staff has set up separate – and intense – conditioning for injured players, too.

Whether a player is hurt or healthy, a rookie or a veteran, the workouts are a step above anything Georgia did last year. The breakdowns that undermined the Bulldogs' 2008 season can't happen again, and Gamble said the players seem to be buying into the program.

"In past years, guys would just do it just to get by or whatever, but now, I think they really want to work out and and try to get better," Gamble said.

Chalk it up to residual frustration from last year's shortcomings.

Georgia entered the 2008 season as the No. 1 team in the country, boasting a roster filled with enough talent that the early rounds of this year's NFL draft could see as many as four Bulldogs selected.

The immense talent and preseason hype may have undermined the team's focus, however, and the work ethic among the players suffered. This year, tight end Bruce Figgins said, that won't be the case.

"I sense a lot more focus and a lot more determination from players this year," Figgins said. "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."

Just as Atkins refused to label last year a disappointing season, the players who remain on the roster are careful not to criticize those who have moved on. Big names like Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Dannell Ellerbe and Asher Allen are still treated with reverence among their former teammates, but no one is downplaying the notion that last year's veterans lacked the leadership necessary to motivate a team that seemed stuck in a perpetual funk for much of the season.

"Leadership is a skill," wide receiver Tony Wilson said. "You can't force it on nobody, just like you can't force talent on them. You're either given it or your not."

And for many of last year's designated leaders, it was a skill that was never truly refined.

Gamble said the problems could have been a function of timing rather than heart. In the past, Georgia's most vocal leaders had been practicing for the part for years. Players like Stafford and Moreno, however, had regularly deferred to their older teammates prior to stepping into the forefront a year ago, while many of the team's seniors weren't playing key roles on the field, making it tougher to rally the troops in the locker room.

"These guys (last year) weren't playing as much and they got into their senior year and never had to say anything," Gamble said. "I guess as the season went on, they just never learned to try to motivate everybody else."

What followed was a lack of discipline both on and off the field. Now, Atkins said, finding leaders is job No. 1.

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

While the coaching staff works to identify this year's leaders, they're offering a bit more oversight of their own.

For the first time, coaches are regular visitors to the team's weight room during conditioning, and they aren't just there to watch. They're spotting, adding weight and offering a good bit of motivation.

"They're pushing a lot of team first, team everything, just kind of that nobody's going to outwork us this offseason," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "We're going to be the best conditioned, best strength we can possibly have."

While Wilson said everyone seems to be buying in to the new philosophy, he's not sure the changes are all for the best.

Prior to Georgia's bowl game, head coach Mark Richt lamented what he thought had been overly cautious practice sessions throughout the season. This year, that won't be the case, and Wilson wonders if the attitude may have swung too far in the other direction.

"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 said. "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."

Wilson may be proved correct, but it would be hard for Georgia to land more players in the training room than it did a year ago, when more than two-dozen Bulldogs succumbed to season-ending injuries.

More importantly, however, were the players who weren't hurt – the ones who remained on the field at practice and on game day, but couldn't match the intensity of Florida or Alabama or Georgia Tech.

"The (coaches) just want us to be one of those elite programs in the country, and 10 wins just isn't good enough anymore," Miller said. "That's what you have going on now. The coaches are really pushing us to move this program forward."

In most places, 10-3 is enough. Last year taught the Bulldogs that their aspirations are higher.

In 2008, Georgia had the talent to be better than it's record, and that's what made last season a disappointment, whether or not the players want to apply that term. The truth is, Figgins said, things should have been better, and this season, the Bulldogs hope they have found the ingredient they so sorely missed a year ago.

"Everybody's going above and beyond," Figgins said. "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."

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