I am always optimistic. I always feel like we have outstanding young men and outstanding coaches. I am a realist in that I know that we play in one of the toughest leagues in America and that we are playing one of the toughest out-of-conference schedules. I know the games are going to be hard fought, but I always go into the season believing we can succeed. Our goal is always to win the Eastern division – that's what we have our sights set on. Of course if you win that you can play for the SEC Championship. If you win that, who knows, you might end up in the big game.
You had the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft…
I know – that was exciting… I guess. No, it was exciting. It was not exciting that (Matthew) left us. It is exciting for him and Georgia to know that your player could be considered the top player in the NFL Draft. We also had the number one running back taken in the NFL Draft, which is exciting.
Each year is different. How has this January to June been different? You have said that you sort of reevaluated some things…
Well, we always do that and everyone makes a big deal about it. It really is not that big of a deal. I think any good company is going to evaluate what they do on either a quarterly basis, a yearly basis or even an event by event. Every time we have a recruiting event we critique it. Every time we have a junior day we say: "What was good? What was bad?" Every time we have a coaches' clinic we always critique what we do. We take notes, so that the next time around you do a better job. Once the season ends it is a new year. There are new leaders. There is a new personality. There is a new chemistry. You want to start out every year leaving no stone unturned as to how you want the team to perform. You can't say: "Well, we have always done it this way, so let's keep doing it that way." All of the sudden are we going to be a three- or four-receiver or a two-receiver team? You have to look at things and see. We have to see who the playmakers are and adjust.
It doesn't seem to me that y'all played bad defense the entire season last year, except for those small stretches of time during three games. Did y'all practice trauma, and I don't mean the traditional change-of-pace during drives in practice. Have y'all said to them: "You have to be ready for something bad or horrific to happen"?
We practice sudden change, like you said, like turnovers, so they can bounce back and get out there and play ball. The main thing that we didn't do that we had done every year before was the physical nature of practice – the amount of tackling – we cut it down. We reduced it to the point of not doing it some weeks. We had so many guys hurt. Every time you tackle live there is risk. You are blocking below the waist. You are taking guys to the ground. You have guys flying around. When you are in a controlled thud you are safer, but you don't play as aggressive, and I think that bit us in the rear end quite frankly.
When did you realize that?
I think we kind of knew it as it was happening. But even so, we were asking if we could afford to lose another guy – it just kind of came down to that. Once the regular season ended, and we got to the bowl practices I basically said: "We are going… I don't care what happens." I do care what happens, but have got to get back to spring football mentality during bowl practice, and get our mentality and edge back. I think we did that in the bowl game, and I think that was a great start. You know, usually I don't think of a bowl game as the beginning of the next season, but I think this year it was a combination of finishing the year and also moving forward. We began to change that mentality from what happened in the season during the bowl game. The LSU week, I think, was the week – I was worried about injuries. I was worried about the fatigue of the team. And I forced our coaches to practice them in tennis shoes because I knew if they practiced in cleats they were going to start running into each other – and I said: "We are not going to do that." It didn't hurt the offense so much, but I think it hurt the defense. You want to be fresh because you want to run around the ball and play hard, but if you lose your fundamentals then you lose that physical edge, and it's hard to play great defense. I think I really hurt us in that way. I learned from that.
Has there been a moment, because I don't think it just happens, when this became Joe Cox's team?
Joe has been really – he has been earning the respect of the team since he arrived. Joe is a guy who has charisma – guys like him. Guys are attracted to him because he cares about his teammates. He loves the team atmosphere. He was at Independence in Charlotte, and they never lost a game in high school. He is used to the closeness about the team. He just likes being in the film room. He likes being in the weight room. He likes throwing and catching. He wants to be a coach. He loves that stuff – he eats it up. He has a tremendous knowledge of the offense, and the defense, too for that matter. He could probably tell anyone on the offense what they should be doing on any given play, and he could probably do the same with the defenders – guys see that.
It seemed like as much as injuries beat y'all up last season--do you reevaluate that? Do you say: "Are we doing something to cause this?"
I think injuries are pretty cyclical – sometimes you get them… sometimes you don't. If I was one or two years into Georgia doing it a certain way I might think we were doing something wrong, but we have not changed a whole lot as far as our off-season conditioning is concerned. We have not changed much as far as what we would do in any practice we have in camp. We do the same drills we have always done. But for whatever reason when we did contact, guys just went down. Sometimes that happens more one year than another. When you talk about evaluating things – we have studied the injuries we have had, and if they are practice, game, if there is a pre-existing condition. We have looked at what other colleges and NFL teams do as far as stabilization of joints – what kind of weightlifting techniques can change – and we have changed some things to try to keep these things from happening. I do think that a lot of years you have them and some years you don't. In reflection, it was not until the end of the season until I mentioned it. During the season I was not talking a whole lot about it. I was thinking that it was just football. Let's not cry about it; let's get the next guy ready to go. When the season ended and you are asking what happened, you have to say that injuries had something to do with the performance of the team.
Was that the toughest part about last season?
Well, yes. I think the best example that the fans could relate to was when Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl against Utah. Their guy was not injured, but he didn't play. All of the sudden they can't block that guy, and their offense struggled mightily that day. That is just one guy. Everyone would say – if that guy had been there they might have beaten Utah. Then if you add 17 guys who are starters or are playing a lot for you, it does take a toll on you.
Did you think that you would be the Dean of SEC coaches at your school? Is that a little odd to you?
It is year number nine. It is amazing. We are still banging away.
Have you learned anything in those nine years?
(Laughing) I have learned that it is a job that you can't ever completely get your hands around. It is always evolving and changing. You might have one issue one year and then never see it again for three more years. You might go into year nine and have something happen that you have never seen in the 22 years you have been coaching. You can't predict a lot of the things that happen. The SEC is a great league with great players and coaches. We have tremendous fan bases and support. It is the finest league in America. If you win in the SEC, you have really done something special.
We are sitting here in May, where do think the expectations are from the fans for this year?
I don't get involved into what expectations are. We can't control that. We could not control that last year. We have expectations inside the program. That is what we are after. We expect to compete for the SEC East, and it starts there for us. I think this season people are maybe a little excited about the unknown. Maybe a year ago they were kind of counting on these media-made stars to carry the day?
Why is it the media? Why did we create them? I don't doubt we did, but still…
You do. When they get asked about it all of the time, or when they are on a magazine cover and that's what the media talks about. The media, they like to have a star. It is hard for the media to talk about "team". They want to talk about personalities and people – guys that they can show highlight tapes of.
This does seem like the first time since maybe 2001 that y'all don't have "a guy". Y'all had Greene and Pollack, Shockley, Stafford and Moreno…
I like it. I like where we are. I think our team understands now more than ever that we must play together. You can't rely on a couple of guys. If we want to win we are going to have to do it as a group. It is important to have the guys believe that.