A new starting quarterback and a new defensive coordinator don’t have University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt fretful in the least bit.
The veteran Bulldogs coach is turning the offense over to fifth-year senior Hutson Mason and the defense to Jeremy Pruitt.
Mason is taking over for four-year starter Aaron Murray, who finished his career holding the Southeastern Conference records for completions and passing touchdowns.
Mason started the final two games of the 2013 season and took over late in the second quarter of a 59-17 win over Kentucky. His completions, attempts and yards in his final two games were more than his career totals combined before those starts. He was 43-of-75 for 619 yards and three TDs in the comeback victory over Georgia Tech and the bowl loss to Nebraska.
Knowing he’s the starter, Mason has approached his upcoming task with diligence. He’s set up much of the offseason workouts, stepping into a role expected out of a senior quarterback.
“Hutson has been doing a lot of things to get into shape,” Richt said earlier this summer. “He knows what it looks like, knows how to organize it. The guys really respect him and trust him. Whatever he says, they’ll do.”
Mason even underwent the tutelage of his quarterbacks coach’s dad. Mike Bobo’s father George worked with Mason on his footwork. Though his tutor was his own position coach’s dad, Mason still had to shell out the fee to pay for the lessons up in the elder coach Bobo’s Rabun County home.
“I tried it and I loved it,” Mason said. “He’s been a great help to all of us. I kinda wish I had him earlier in my career.”
Though Mason had to play the game before against Kentucky, the matchup with Georgia Tech was his first start. And it didn’t start out well — the Bulldogs trailed 20-0 late in the first half against their in-state rival.
Mason finished 22-of-36 for 299 yards and two touchdowns, and he and running back Todd Gurley led the Bulldogs in a 41-34 victory in double overtime. Mason led the Bulldogs on a seven-play, 86-yard drive in 1:09, with his 9-yard pass to Gurley ending the march with only 34 seconds left in the first half for Georgia’s first points.
The late score and the eventual comeback have buoyed Mason, after he was thrust into the role after Murray incurred a season-ending knee injury against Kentucky.
“He did play a good bit of the Kentucky game and had a lot of success that game,” Richt said. “We’re down 20-0 and not a whole lot of good was happening offensively. We had a drive right before the half and moved the ball a little bit and we scored. I think that really broke the ice for him and helped him settle down and play like we know he can play.
“It was not fun living through it, but it was good he lived through it and came out a winner. It really helped his confidence.”
After defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left for Louisville, Richt swayed Pruitt to leave national champion Florida State to join his staff.
“Getting him to come to Georgia was a big deal,” Richt said.
Pruitt and the rest of the defensive staff are all newcomers to the Georgia program. Former Auburn defensive lineman Tracy Rocker, Mike Ekeler and Kevin Sherrer also are first-year Bulldogs defensive coaches.
“It’s a little unusual,” Richt acknowledged, “but the entire defensive staff is all brand-new. All four of those coaches have coached high school football, and I think that’s important. They have had the chance to take young men from ground zero and teach them the fundamentals. They’re really good teachers and really good fundamental coaches. They’ve all been on national championship teams as assistant coaches. It’s a strong staff.”
It’s more than a new coaching staff — it’s also a new scheme. The Bulldogs managed to pack in a lot during spring practice, Richt said, getting in their front, coverages and pressures.
“I think we put in enough or exposed them to enough to play an entire season on,” Richt said. “You game plan week by week, but I think the plan was to expose them to as much as possible so the next time around it’s not the first time they heard it.”
Pruitt put in more of the defense in spring than Richt expected, and the head Bulldog said his new defensive chief won’t dial up a defense that his players may not fully grasp.
“He wasn’t hell-bent on getting this installed if guys weren’t catching on to it,” Richt said. “He said, ‘Coach, if we can’t execute it, I won’t call it.’”
With linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, the Bulldogs return the bulk of a defense that held opponents to 148 yards rushing pergame.
Also back are ends Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey, along with outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. The secondary has been hit hard by defections and dismissals since the end of the season.
Georgia, however, expects to get three key contributors back from season-ending injuries in 2013.