ATHENS — Kelin Johnson grew up cheering for Miami and Florida State. He never cared much for Florida, and apparently the feeling was mutual.
Now, Georgia’s senior safety has one last shot at the Gators, who didn’t consider him for a scholarship even though he’s from right down the road in Daytona Beach.
"This is a homecoming game for me," said Johnson, looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown between No. 20 Georgia and the ninth-ranked Gators in Jacksonville, Fla. "I want to go out with a bang."
When Johnson was coming out of high school, he never heard from Florida. He was considered a bit undersized to play safety and wound up signing with the Bulldogs.
Does he want to get back at his home-state team?
"A lot of people try to say that I’m going in there to show them what they could have had," Johnson said. "But I count my blessings. I’m happy to be here. I made the best of it. Yeah, you take (getting snubbed by Florida) into consideration, but I just want to go out there and play hard regardless. I really don’t look at that too much."
Maybe that’s because he was never a Florida fan.
"Did I like them? Not really," said Johnson, who grew up about 100 miles from the Gainesville campus. "They were a good team, but I didn’t care too much for them. I was a Miami and Florida State fan."
Georgia saw something in Johnson that other schools didn’t, mainly his leadership and enthusiasm. "He was a tremendous special teams player in high school, so we knew if nothing else, we would have a good special teams player," coach Mark Richt said. "You can’t predict leadership ability all the time, but anybody who practices that hard and plays that hard is going to draw the attention of coaches and teammates."
Johnson will certainly be fired up for this game.
"I’m going to bring enthusiasm. That’s one thing you know about me," he said. "Whether I mess up or not, I’m going to be energetic.
Turning around turnovers
Last year, Georgia had trouble hanging on to the ball.
Not so this season.
The Bulldogs have the fewest turnovers in the country, with one fumble and four interceptions through seven games. A season ago, they lost 15 fumbles and were picked off 16 times.
Coach Mark Richt gives much of the credit to sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose main focus during the offseason was making fewer high-risk throws and keeping a better handle on the ball when hit.
"The quarterback, more than anybody — especially if you’re going to throw the ball 20 or 30 times a game — is the one guy who can help it from getting out of hand by making good decisions," Richt said. "
But there’s another side to the turnover story. While Georgia’s offense has taken much better care of the ball, the defense has struggled to take it away from the other team.
The Bulldogs (5-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) have recovered four fumbles and made only two interceptions, ranking 49th nationally in turnover margin at plus-1. "It’s big, especially in a game like this," safety Kelin Johnson said. "You have to have turnovers so you have an opportunity to give the ball back to your offense. We’ve not been doing that a lot this year."
The off week gave Georgia’s defense a chance to heal.
Linebackers Marcus Washington and Brandon Miller are expected back for Saturday’s game, allowing the Bulldogs to go with their preferred lineup for the first time in a month.
Also returning: Mikey Henderson, who’s been bothered by a sore hamstring. Senior running back Thomas Brown (broken collarbone) will not make the trip to Jacksonville. The Bulldogs will take along touted freshman Caleb King, who may be forced into his first playing time of the season.
While Florida has won 15 of the last 17 meetings with Georgia, the Bulldogs still hold a comfortable edge in the series.
Georgia lists its lead at 46-37-2, while Florida gives the Bulldogs credit for one fewer win, refusing to count a 52-0 loss at Macon in 1904.
They said it
"It just kind of seems like the games have gone in spurts. Georgia dominated for a while. Then Florida. It’s been going back and forth. We’ve just been talking about taking it back. We’re trying take back that streak and start winning against these guys." — Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.