January 13, 2012

Return engagement

One by one they followed head coach Mark Richt into the team meeting room at the Butts-Mehre Building, 13 draft-eligible members of the Georgia Bulldogs whose decisions to return or move onto the NFL figured to shape the program's immediate future.

Just two days ago, tight end Orson Charles announced his days in Athens were done, leading to speculation that a number of his teammates could potentially follow suit.

Turns out Charles will be the only one as Friday, the rest of Georgia's draft-eligible players each announced they would be returning for another year.

"Today is a great day for Georgia," Richt said. "We have a lot of good news today. Quite a few guys submitted papers for the draft to see if it was time to make the decision to fulfill their dream of playing in the NFL. These men decided to stay at Georgia. This group of players has tremendous leadership and talent and has played some tremendous football in the Southeastern Conference. I am thrilled that they have made this decision."

It was the second bit of big news for the Bulldog football program.

Just one hour earlier, Georgia picked up its 17th verbal commitment in Tarboro, N.C.'s Todd Gurley, a decision that's expected to bolster the Bulldogs' suspect running game.

But as big as that news was, what followed during Friday's press conference likely was even more significant.

Richt said he felt it was important to share "the good news."

"I don't know if I articulated it to everybody, I probably should have, but it's even better that so many of them really did consider doing this. It's a little bit scary, but in the end when they all go through the process they went though, talking to coaches, talking to family, talking to whoever else they might have talked to, they thoroughly thought through, should I stay or should I go and these guys decided to stay," Richt said. "Now, it just shows that even more, they are truly bought in, they are putting their heart in this thing, it's not just their career, and they're putting their heart in this thing and as a coach, especially the head coach, it excites me to know that we will have a player-driven team. This is as strong of a group as I can remember."

No doubt defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is smiling.

Friday's news means that Georgia will return nine of its 11 defensive starters from last year's squad that finished ranked in the top three in the SEC and top five in the nation in total defense (277.21 yards per game).

That list includes safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo, cornerback Branden Smith and linebacker Cornelius Washington, four starters many figured would be the most likely to leave.

Linebacker Jarvis Jones and nose tackle John Jenkins had earlier announced that they would be returning for another season.

"In the game of football, everybody has to do their part because football is a puzzle. Seeing (Jones) wanting to do his part was one part of the puzzle helped, and after that we just started adding to it," Jenkins said. "One person decide to stay, the next person decided to stay … I think everybody sees we have the opportunity to do something great next year."

Rambo, who entertained the notion of leaving early after 2010, said the lure of big bucks never really came into play.

"It wasn't about the money," Rambo said. "My family, they just wanted me to do what's best for me. Money comes and goes so you can't just base it on money. But I felt there's more money to be made by coming back next year, working on the small things I need to improve on."

Of all the Bulldogs spoken to Friday, Smith was the closest to giving up his collegiate career.

"It wasn't until about 10 minutes (before the press conference) that's when I made my decision," Smith said. "But in the end we stuck together as a team and everybody decided to stay."

Smith's biggest reason for almost leaving was to provide for his one-year-old daughter Leiyah (Smith).

"It's not all about me anymore - it's about my daughter. I was just thinking about what's best for her and not what's best for me, and right now that's getting my degree and sticking it out one more year," Smith said. "I really think and know that I can increase my draft status from here. Right now, everybody doesn't really know my name, know who I am. This is the year everybody will know who Branden Smith is."

Richt cited Jones' decision to stay as having the biggest effect of all.

"I think it had a tremendous effect. I think Jarvis, as good as a season as he head, he had a good a reason as anybody to even test the water, but he said I don't need to test the water - I know I want to be here, I haven't finished growing up and I haven't finished being the best player I can be and I haven't finished the business of winning at Georgia," Richt said. "I was really proud of him, just to be man enough to step up and say that, because sometimes it's harder not to peek at what's going on out there and say I don't need to learn any more."

With Signing Day scheduled for Feb. 1, Richt hopes prospective recruits are paying attention as well.

"If I'm viewing it from a prospect point of view, you want to be at a place where the guys want to be at Georgia. Some guys go because it's just time to go, so it's not like we've got guys going because they don't like it around here," Richt said. "I think they see that these guys have had enough of an experience at Georgia, they've got faith in the school, they've got faith in the coaches, they've got faith in their teammates and that they want to be here. I think it speaks volumes, personally."