ATHENS — Georgia’s first practice without Mark Richt in 15 years on Wednesday launched an awkward transition period between coaches.
Bryan McClendon is Georgia’s interim coach for the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl game against Penn State. He must keep the team together without Richt, who was fired, while new coach Kirby Smart completes his duties as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
McClendon is working with makeshift staff that has lost defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler.
The staff for the bowl game will include graduate assistants in fill-in roles while tight ends coach John Lilly calls the offensive plays and linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer coordinates the defense.
Even as his own status as wide receivers coach remains uncertain after the bowl game, McClendon said he’s keeping the focus “all about the kids.”
“We just have to show these guys we’ve got it, we’re OK,” said McClendon, who said he was “very honored” to be selected as the interim coach.
“Very rarely does a guy who’s working his way up the ranks get put in a position like that in a school that he loves, at his alma mater,” he said.
McClendon played as a wide receiver for Georgia under Richt from 2002-05 and served as an assistant coach since 2009.
Richt was fired on Nov. 29. Smart, a former Georgia player and assistant under Richt, was hired on Dec. 6 with the agreement he would coach Alabama’s defense through the College Football Playoff.
McClendon said he reached out to Richt for advice.
“His main thing was just to make sure that I think through everything in the aspect of how this is going to affect 125 kids and the whole staff, not so much what’s best for five people or 10 people or anything like that,” McClendon said.
Lilly also called the plays in Georgia’s Belk Bowl win over Louisville last season after former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was hired as Colorado State’s coach.
The changes this year are far more jarring, beginning with the exit of Richt, Georgia’s coach for 15 years who was quickly hired by Miami, his alma mater.
“This is definitely one of the most foreign experiences for me,” said senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “I’ve never been in this type of situation before.”
Smart began building his Georgia staff last week by hiring offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, offensive line coach Sam Pittman and defensive assistant Glenn Schumann. The three may observe some of the bowl practices but are not expected to have active roles.
McClendon said Wednesday he has no instructions from Smart to make any changes to Georgia’s schemes designed to begin the transition to the new staff.
Smart said Monday he’s working to retain running backs coach Thomas Brown. Brown and Sherrer have been recruiting for Georgia since Richt was fired.
McClendon said Greyson Lambert will be the starting quarterback in the bowl game. Lambert has no assurances about the starting job in 2016.
On Tuesday, Jacob Eason, a top-ranked high school quarterback from Lake Stevens (Washington) High School, reaffirmed his commitment to sign with Georgia. Eason is expected to enroll in January and compete with Lambert in spring practice.
Lambert said he’s accustomed to competition at Virginia, where he began his career, and Georgia.
“I’ve been in a QB competition all four years of my college career, so it’s really nothing new,” Lambert said. “I’m looking forward to competing.”
NOTES: McClendon said freshman defensive end Chauncey Rivers has been suspended for the bowl game. Rivers was arrested in Athens last week on his second misdemeanor marijuana charge in two months. Rivers had four tackles in four games this season. The suspension is expected to carry through at least the first three games of the 2016 season. … Todd Hartley, director of recruiting, will coach special teams in the bowl game.