ATHENS, Ga.— If you can’t find “coach Schott” on the practice field, you probably won’t hear him either.
While his predecessor, Mike Bobo, was know for a loud coaching style, new Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer prefers to save his voice.
“I guess they’re trying to keep it a bit similar,” running back Sony Michel said. “But I haven’t seen much yelling from coach Schott.”
The Bulldogs hired Schottenheimer in January to replaced longtime coordinator Bobo, who left to become the head coach of Colorado State. Now Schottenheimer is one of the newest faces in the program as the Dawgs enter spring practices.
But Schottenheimer isn’t the only newcomer, and Georgia’s coaching staff shakeup is one reason why its offense is the focus of the spring. A number of new names joined head coach Mark Richt’s offensive staff after Bobo’s departure. Richt moved running backs coach Bryan McClendon to wide receivers before bringing in Wisconsin assistant Thomas Brown to coach running backs and McNeese State assistant Rob Sale to oversee the offensive line. Georgia also hired strength coach Mark Hocke from Alabama.
The moves ran counter to the stability that had long defined Georgia’s attack. Bobo had been the program’s offensive coordinator for the past eight seasons. He’d been on Richt’s staff for each of his 14 seasons in Athens and even played quarterback at Georgia from 1994-97.
Beyond Bobo, several key on-field contributors aren’t around to kick off spring practices. All-SEC running back Todd Gurley declared early for the NFL draft despite a junior season marred by an NCAA suspension and a knee injury. Quarterback Hutson Mason, center David Andrews and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett all graduated. The offense basically hit a giant “RESET” button in the middle of Sanford Stadium.
That group was especially prolific in 2014. The Bulldogs ranked first in the SEC in scoring (41.3 points per game) and yards per play (6.79) last season. Now Schottenheimer is tasked with maintaining that success after he spent the last eight seasons with the NFL’s New York Jets and St. Louis Rams. He hasn’t coached at the college level in 15 years.
The good news is Schottenheimer isn’t completely rewriting the playbook. The coach kept the pro-style offense, which Bobo favored during his time in Athens. Several players noted differences in the details, from pre-snap reads to snap counts, but Schottenheimer largely maintained the status quo.
“I like the way the offensive staff is working and the way the offensive unit is responding,” Richt said. “There’s enough difference where you’re not going at the same tempo that you’re used to going at. But that’s understandable.”
Thus far players haven’t seen a drastic shift in philosophy.
“Bobo’s been gone for a long time, so we’ve sort of transitioned out of that,” offensive tackle Kolton Houston said. “I don’t think anybody’s really detecting any differences. We’re still a pro-style offense. We’re doing the same thing, establishing the run and throwing off that.”
The running game is where Georgia will almost certainly thrive again after pacing the conference with 6.04 yards per carry last season. Sophomore Nick Chubb, the 2014 SEC Freshman of the Year, started eight games and rushed for 1,547 yards last year, the fourth-most in school history. He’ll be joined by Michel and a now-healthy Keith Marshall. Richt said Marshall has “no limitations” this spring after missing the final 10 games last year with a leg injury.
Schottenheimer will also help determine a replacement for Mason at quarterback. Sophomore Brice Ramsey is the presumed favorite after playing in eight games in 2014, including the entire second half of Georgia’s 37-21 win over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. But junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park will compete this spring, as well. Schottenheimer, who backed up Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel on a Steve Spurrier-coached team at Florida, will oversee the quarterbacks. “It’s going to be a hard call for the coaches,” Michel said.
Whoever steps up at quarterback will have plenty of weapons around him. But despite last year’s offense’s many successes, it wasn’t enough to lead Georgia to an SEC title. An early loss to South Carolina hurt the Bulldogs’ chances of reaching Atlanta, and then they gave up 418 rushing yards in an inexplicable 38-20 loss to Florida. It didn’t help that Gurley played in only six games due to a torn ACL and an NCAA suspension for receiving money for autographs. The program notched its eighth 10-win season in Richt’s tenure, but to many in Athens, the lack of a conference title made last year yet another disappointing season.
Plans to avoid disappoint this year began way before spring practice. A number of players shuddered when recalling offseason conditioning under Hocke, who made sure Georgia didn’t have time to dwell on 2014.
“Winter workouts, man, it was so hard,” Chubb said. “We ran so much. God, we ran a lot. But I think it’s paying off.”
The Bulldogs now enter spring in shape but facing plenty of external pressure. Schottenheimer was an outside-the-box hire for Richt, whose own success as an offensive coordinator at Florida State helped him land the Georgia job before the 2001 season. Many Bulldogs fans were happy to see Bobo go. The coach was often criticized for his play-calling, a big reason why “Run the ball, Bobo” became its own Internet meme. Yet Bobo’s offenses were regularly among the best in the SEC. Meanwhile, Schottenheimer’s Rams finished no better than 23rd in the NFL in total offense during his three seasons with the franchise.
Georgia won’t kick off the 2015 season against Louisiana-Monroe for another five months. In Richt’s estimation, that’s plenty of time to perfect a new offensive system. The coach said staggered practice dates in the spring make for a smoother installation process. But until Georgia takes the field in the fall, the question will remain of whether the Dawgs’ new-look offense can avoid a drop-off in ‘15, when the program might again enter as an SEC East title contender.
“This spring, we’ll just focus on team chemistry to get us all going,” Chubb said. “Get the new plays, the terminology all down, the formations. That’s important for us right now, just getting comfortable with the basics.”
Richt hasn’t won an SEC title since ’05 and has never brought a national championship to Athens in 14 seasons. Perhaps a different direction on offense can help end that drought.