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Richt appears in Gainesville for UGA Days event
Georgia football coach talked new defensive staff, 2014 player depth
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Mark Slonaker leads the Bulldog faithful, including gymnastics coach Danna Durante and head football coach Mark Richt, at left, in a cheer Tuesday night at the Gainesville Civic Center. Slonaker is the current University of Georgia Bulldog Club executive director and former basketball player and assistant coach. - photo by Nat Gurley | The Times

When Georgia football coach Mark Richt hits the road for UGA Days events, he tends to drop a couple of nuggets of information that fans wouldn’t typically hear from the head man during the heat of the battle during the regular season.

Such was the case during Tuesday’s appearance at the Gainesville Civic Center.

When Richt was discussing new inside linebackers coach and defensive special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler with moderator Chuck Dowdle, the talk veered quickly to the energy drink at the root of the new assistant coaches high-tempo personality.

“They call him coach Red Bull,” said Richt, which drew a chuckle from the more than 200 fans and Georgia alumni in attendance. “He got that nickname when he was coaching at Nebraska, and actually has a refrigerator and lifetime supply of it for his office.”

Richt took to the stage, following gymnastics coach Danna Durante’s time to chat about the program’s success with Dowdle. The Gym Dogs are fresh off Sunday’s fifth-place finish with a team led by 10 underclassmen at the NCAA Championship in Birmingham, Ala.

University of Georgia president Jere Morehead also got a chance to address the strides the school has made in academics and fundraising hopes for the future among its alumni base.

Still, a majority of the Georgia faithful were most eagerly awaiting Richt’s statements about the coming season, particularly the overhaul of the defensive coaching staff led by Jeremy Pruitt, who won a national title in the same position with Florida State in January.

His staff of four was completed with the addition of Ekeler, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and ‘Sam’ linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer.

The new defensive coaches, according to Richt, have blended well with the Bulldogs’ offensive staff and its five coaches that are still all in place from the 2013 season.

Many times, Richt said the entire coaching staff will now huddle together in one office to do any number of tasks, ranging from watching film to evaluating prospects. Richt feels that type of camaraderie is rare and should serve Georgia well in 2014 as it looks to improve on an 8-5 campaign.

“We have a cooperative spirit among our entire coaching staff,” Richt said.

The new staff has also made for new challenges, especially on the defensive side, with all nine returning starters essentially having to prove again they deserve to start on Saturdays in the fall.

“Players were excited by the new defensive staff early on, then they’re just trying to survive,” Richt said. “No one has locked up a starting job, especially on defense.”

Now that the spring session is complete, Richt touched on the promising diagnosis of four starters who look to be ready after season-ending ACL injuries in 2013, and a fully-healed junior running back Todd Gurley who was hampered by ankle issues last year.

Georgia’s coach said Gurley, an almost-certain Heisman candidate, is about 90-95 percent of where he needs to be to assert his status as a ‘super-elite back’, while wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and running back Keith Marshall — all three returning from ACL surgery — should be full speed again by June and certainly ready to go for full-contact practice in August, Richt said.

Richt sounds like he believes Gurley, who led the program with 989 yards on the ground despite the injury against LSU early in the year, belongs in the Heisman conversation.

“I don’t think you have to campaign for the Heisman, it kind of speaks for itself,” Richt said. “I know with Todd, the bigger the game, the more excited he gets.”

Last year’s quarterback Aaron Murray was the last to go down with a knee injury in 2013, and recently put on a show during pro day in Athens for NFL scouts, just five months after having surgery.

During spring ball, the only injury Richt suffered to Georgia’s roster was to walk-on lineman Eddie McQuillen with an ACL injury, which will sideline him for the season.

“We came out of spring injury-free and clean,” Richt said.

To combat the change in the speed of the game, Georgia’s coaching staff implemented player assessments on a player-by-player and position-by-position basis, depending on what the particular coach wanted to his see his players improve on to catch up with the changing speed of the game and try to eliminate injuries.

“You may only have, maybe, 15 seconds between plays now,” Richt said. “The game is now more spread out with a faster pace than before.”

Richt also shed some light on the way the offensive line is coming together. David Andrews is the starting center, while John Theus is the leading candidate at left tackle and Kolton Houston at right tackle.

Left guard could be manned by Brandon Kublanow or Mark Beard, while 330-pound junior Greg Pyke is closer to earning the spot at right guard for the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30 in Athens.

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