In Midst of Change Dawgs Still Recruiting

ATHENS – Bowl practice began Saturday, but the past two weeks have been all about the future for Georgia.

Head coach Mark Richt announced 12 days ago that three defensive coaches wouldn't be returning in 2010, and since then, the rest of the coaching staff has been scrambling on the recruiting trail, talking to recruits and easing the concerns of current commitments.

"It's more of a staff thing," recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said. "We're (short) handed. We're three guys down. Everybody's just lending a hand."

The open contact period for recruits began just hours after Georgia's win over Georgia Tech to wrap up the regular season, and Richt dismissed three defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, just four days later.

Since then, Garner, Richt and Georgia's other coaches have been scrambling to talk to a wide range of recruits and assure the team's 18 commitments that the future was still bright in Athens.

That job wasn't exactly simple, but Garner said the changes on the defensive staff haven't shaken confidence in commitments as much as most outside observers might have assumed. The rumors about Martinez's future persisted throughout the season, and most players knew changes could be in store.

"I think with the media, those rumors were out there all year," Garner said. "I don't know how shocked everyone was. The kids initially asked about it but a lot of that was stirred by people calling them, asking what they thought."

Of course, that doesn't mean recruits don't have plenty of questions – with the first and foremost surrounding who might come in as a replacement.

Georgia has been particularly cautious in allowing any information to leak out about potential defensive coordinators, and while rumors about Alabama's Kirby Smart and Kansas State's Vic Koenning have made the rounds, Garner said the only certainty he's aware of – and in turn, the only information he's passing along to recruits – is that Richt knows what he's doing.

"My biggest thing that I stressed to all the kids was that Coach Richt is here, he's the leader and this is his program. He's going to lead Georgia back," Garner said. "You just have to have faith and confidence that if he made that decision, he's doing what's best for the program long-term, and whoever he hires, it's going to be a person he thinks can take the program to that next level."

So far, Garner said the response has been immensely positive from recruits, with Georgia even adding its 19th commitment last week when linebacker Zander Ogletree – brother of current Bulldogs commitment Alec Ogletree – announced he planed to play for Georgia next season despite the changes to the coaching staff.

While Garner said he hasn't been able to pass along a timetable on when a replacement for the departed coaches might be hired, he is promising that whoever gets the jobs will hit the ground running, and that's been good enough for most of the players with whom he has spoken.

"As soon as someone is hired, that person is going to be in your home, he's going to be building relationships with you, and we're going to get that bond created as quickly as possible," Garner said of his message to recruits. "You just have to have faith in Coach Richt, and obviously his track record speaks for itself."

Of course, beyond the question of who will replacement Martinez, the bigger issue for many recruits might be what system will replacement the one Georgia has employed for the past nine years, first under Brian Van Gorder and then under Martinez.

That's another question Garner said he can't completely answer, but he's certain that the athletes Georgia is recruiting are capable of working under virtually any system that might be put in place under the new defensive coordinator.

"Schematically, everyone now is so versatile. We're a 4-3 base under Coach Van Gorder and Coach Martinez, but we did some 3-4 stuff," Garner said. "We did multiple stuff. I think whomever or whatever coach or system goes, I think the personnel, the nucleus is here. You may have to go out and tweak it here or there if you change it a whole lot. We're pretty versatile as is, so the guys are feeling fine."

Georgia had 16 recruits in Athens over the weekend for the team's annual year-end gala. Coaches will split time this week between bowl practice and recruiting travel before the NCAA's mandated dead period, which lasts from Saturday night through Jan. 4. After that, it will be a mad dash to signing day, but by then, Garner hopes many of the questions will have already been answered and this period of uncertainty will be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, Garner said, his best approach to the recruiting trail is the same one he has taken with his current players – be honest, straightforward and confident in the future.

"The rumors in the information age we live in now, that's something that's going to persist – whether it be credible or whatever," Garner said. "That's the society we live in. You're not trying to mislead people or mislead the kids. You try to be honest with them up front, and that's the way we've always treated these guys."

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