Saturday September 23rd, 2017 11:26PM

Richt, Bulldog faithful rub elbows, share hope during 'UGA Day' in Gainesville

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor

  Contact Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Mark Richt cut a relaxed and slimmer figure as he surveyed the crowd at the Gainesville Civic Center on Tuesday.

"I've lost 20 pounds -- I went from gross to kind of fat," Richt chuckled, an admission that drew plenty of warm laughter from those in attendance at "UGA Day."

Indeed, the entire night provided an amiable atmosphere between coach and alumni, as the coach -- along with new University of Georgia president Dr. Jere Morehead and gymnastics coach Danna Durante -- took time to talk about their recent experiences and their hopes for the future.

And judging by the attitude of Bulldog fans and the head Dog himself, hopes are indeed high again in Athens despite last season's disappointing finish as they watched another hopeful campaign slip from Georgia's grasp as devastating injuries mounted.

Like most coaches, however, Richt was not about to start fanning the flames of expectation.

"I think if the guys make a lot of progress, get healthy and bond together -- if they're willing to sacrifice for the greater good -- I think we've got a chance to be really good," Richt said. "But there's a lot of teams out there with a chance to be really good."

Plenty in the Bulldog nation believe those chances are buoyed by the program's new defensive coordinator, and the name Jeremy Pruitt was on plenty of lips during Tuesday's banquet.

"I'm excited about the defense's ability to turn things around. And if they do that I think the program has the ability to do something big," Britton Adams, a Gainesville resident and University graduate said. "I think the way the coordinator move played out, people feel good about it."

Pruitt, who led Florida State's defense in last year's BCS Championship campaign for the Seminoles, heads up an entirely new defensive staff in Athens -- a group that Richt says has given the Bulldogs a jolt.

"It's odd to lose an entire defensive staff at one time but that's what happened. It's kind of reminiscent of when we first got here 15 years ago," Richt told the crowd. "It was exciting to put something new together. It has energized our building."

That includes defensive players, who are still adjusting to how their new leaders want things done.

"(The players) started out extremely excited, then they began to just survive," Richt said. "If you want things done a certain way in practice, then you demand it be that way all the time. The more consistently we go about our business, the easier it will be for us as coaches."

Much of that demand is in speed and conditioning. Two facets that Richt says his new staff has hammered home all spring -- and will make a focus of offseason workouts in and out of the gym.

"The game is being played with a lot more tempo," Richt said. "There's a lot more plays being run. It used to be that you would have 40 seconds between plays. Now you may have 15. You have to train for that and condition for that. And you've got to be able to move and change direction and play in space."

Plenty of Bulldog boosters are hopeful that a unit that under-achieved in many fans eyes last season -- Georgia tied for 79th in the nation in scoring defense at 29 points allowed per game and was 45th in total defense at 375.5 yards per game -- will see immediate dividends under Pruitt's staff.

"You've got to look at Auburn last year: never mind a coordinator, they brought in a new whole new staff and went to national championship game," Adams said. "I don't think there's any reason why you can't see drastic improvement when you have talent like Georgia does."

"I think the defensive coordinator changes will be good," added Gainesville resident and 2007 Georgia grad Phil Bonelli. "I'll be excited to hear as many details as he can share."

There weren't many revelations from Richt, but there were plenty of tidbits, as he talked with fans for almost half an hour, including a question and answer session, in which fans queried plenty about the offense as well.

-- On Todd Gurley: "I think he's about 90-95 percent. Now he's got to get in the conditioning to be super elite. We really wanted the weight he was a year ago. I thought he was at a perfect weight a year ago. Unless he has a setback, he'll be fine. ... I don't think you have to have a campaign for Heisman. I think the numbers, the highlights will speak for themselves. I think he'll be preseason top five pick (in Heisman watch lists). I'd be shocked if he wasn't first or second team All-American in every poll. He's that good -- if he's healthy, in shape and playing at his best. Spring was kind of boring for him at first. He was ready to get to the season. But he really turned it up a notch after the first week, and we got excited about that."

-- On the offensive line: "At the end of spring there were two offensive lines. (John) Theus at left tackle, (Brandon) Kublanow at left guard, David Andrews at center, at right guard we had Greg Pyke and Kolton Houston at right tackle. We felt we could win with that. We also had Houston at left guard some and Theus at right tackle and (Mark) Beard at left tackle because he's more comfortable on that side. I think we'll be very good up front. We won't be a dominating bunch of maulers. But they're very well-coached. They get their hat in the right spot; they drive their feet at contact, and they've got a little meanness and toughness about them. And if you do that you're going to create some space for these backs and give our quarterback some time."

-- On linebackers and special teams coach Mike Ekeler: I actually go to see coach Ekeler once a day to get some positive vibes. Coach Ekeler has a fridge; he's got a lifelong deal with Red Bull, and they send him cases whenever he asks for it. They called him coach Red Bull at Nebraska, and Red Bull got word of it and started sending him cases."

-- On quarterback Hutson Mason: "Somebody interviewed him, and I liked this, he said, 'I can't break Murray's records in one year. The only thing I can do to really distinguish myself is to win a championship.' That's what he's focused on."

And, like all fan bases, championships are very much on the mind of the Bulldog faithful

"I don't think anyone is satisfied," Adams said. "You see all these other SEC teams winning titles and playing for the BCS and there's a "why not us?" mentality that a lot of fans are feeling, especially with resources and in-state talent at Georgia's disposal. There's no reason we can't be on par with those other schools."
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