As all things must change, so too will the Bulldogs.
The seniors of Georgia's football team (6-4, 4-3 SEC) will storm into Sanford Stadium as players for the last time when they face Kentucky this weekend. For some, the thought that their college careers are drawing to a close has gradually begun to take hold over the course of the last few months.
For others, the inevitability of moving on may not register until Saturday night.
“I will definitely feel [the emotions] but I’m going to try not to. It’s definitely going to be emotional because it’s your last game but it’s not really a sad feeling,” defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “It’s just your next step in life.”
But even as the players prepare to move forward, it would seem impossible not to turn their gaze backwards, if only briefly, and reflect on the moments and years that have led up to this final home game.
A goodbye to “G”
The past four years undoubtedly showcase an incredible array of emotional highs and lows for this group of seniors. From the only losing season of Mark Richt’s head coaching career in 2010 to the consecutive Southeastern Conference East titles that followed, the program was surely trending upward and had lofty expectations entering 2013.
Smith, one of only two seniors to log a start on the young Georgia defense, largely lived up to his billing this year, recording a career-high six sacks and four tackles for-loss. But for much of the team, it could be said that a lot of it has been defined by falling short.
The overwhelming number of injuries to important players, Smith says, played a big part in that disappointment.
“Unfortunately we’ve had the injury bug, and that’s tough. Not just for this season, but for the players that are hurt. That’s what is most important. No player ever wants to deal with injuries and my heart goes out for those guys,” Smith said.
And for the defense in particular, just as much was predicated on its lack of battle-tested players — underclassmen whom Smith vouched for week after week.
“We have so many young guys that we’re dependent on and they just don’t have the experience. It’s just tough but at the end of the day I’m proud of everybody,” Smith said.
Almost the entirety of the Bulldogs defense will return in 2014. But in losing Smith, the unit loses one of its beloved veteran leaders — not to mention a sense of humor unlike any other and an easy-going demeanor.
It is through all of these traits that Smith brought a noted vibrancy to the locker room that fueled a cohesive atmosphere on defense.
“It’s going to be pretty tough. I’ve known G for a few years now. Somebody you know from back home and being here with him and seeing him go is going to be crazy,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “G got his own personality. He’s a very funny person. You always want to be around G to hear what he got to say next.”
Though certainly not small at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, neither was Smith the largest lineman on the field. But his on-field effort, Herrera says, turned out to be what set the Atlanta native apart from his peers as a Bulldog. It is why he will leave the confines of Athens so well-respected.
“When I first met him, he wasn’t playing that much, but he always worked hard in practice. Everybody seen he worked hard in practice,” Herrera said. “And when he got his shot, he just stayed in, kept working hard. That’s probably why he is who he is today, and why he’s making so many plays he do now. Because he kept working hard.”
Tight end from the north country
The Bulldogs don’t sign many recruits from Massachusetts.
Ever one to break stereotypes, that turned out to be exactly what Arthur Lynch did. He took a leap of faith across the Mason-Dixon line — one perhaps greater than any of his southern-bred compatriots — and stuck the landing.
“In college, you come out here, you take a chance and you don’t really know what to expect and kind of grow a lot through four or five years,” Lynch said. “You really see the final product of what you become.”
The transition may not have been immediate or even all that smooth at times, but coaches say he has come to embrace the state of Georgia and even the quirks of playing for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
“He didn’t think he would fit in after he first got here. He’ll tell you the story, he thought I was from a different planet when I tried to talk to him and coach him. He’s like this guy’s crazy,” Bobo said. “But I think he would call the South his second home now. He’s a genuine person, no matter where he’s from, he’s a genuine guy, he loves his teammates and they love him because of how genuine he is.”
Lynch fits in just as well on the field.
A two-year starter at tight end, he has recorded 19 catches for 318 yards receiving and three touchdowns this season and could end up with career-highs in both categories once the final three games are in the books.
In addition to his involvement as a receiver, coaches have also praised his ability to contribute as a blocker in the running and passing game — talents that could serve him well in the NFL. Having just accepted an invitation to this year's Senior Bowl, the highest level of football would appear to be exactly what’s next on Lynch’s mind once the season wraps up.
“I’m excited to test my individual talents against some of the best in the country. Lucky I’ve played in the SEC for four or five years now and I kind of know what to expect about the level of talent,” he said. “Hopefully this can be a taste of what the NFL can be like.”
But even with the prospect of a pro career potentially waiting on the other end of December, Saturday will still represent a bittersweet moment for the Dartmouth, Mass. native.
“I am excited, but it's going to be kind of depressing and sad at the same time because I have so many memories here and so many close friends that I’ll be moving on from, starting a new chapter in my life. It will be a special moment,” Lynch said.
Often the unsung heroes of Georgia’s prolific offense, the Bulldogs will give three senior offensive linemen their sentimental send-offs against Kentucky.
Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette — all starters with over 100 combined career starts among the three of them — will depart at the end of the season.
A couple may even get teary-eyed in confronting that reality.
“It’ll be exciting because knowing you’ll run out on the field and see my family. It’s been a long journey, just coming here as a freshman, didn’t know I would start playing in the middle of the year to now where I’ve started 100 games,” said Gates. “I might get emotional, I can’t say, but it’ll be joy. Tears of joy. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”
And while Burnette also admitted that the 325-pound Gates may shed a tear, he wouldn't rule out himself or Lee, either.
“I’ll probably pick on KG and say he’ll get emotional. He’s a big softie," Burnette said. "I don’t know, might be my guy Dallas over here, he’s always trying to show he’s a tough guy, so you never know. I don’t know it might be me.”
Of course, at the same time Georgia’s linemen will seek to channel those emotions and mold them into a sound performance on the field against the Wildcats.
“[Senior night] can be a distraction sometimes, but I feel like it’s going to give us energy. For me it is,” Burnette said. “I’ve wanted to play on that field and in that stadium since I was 10 years old. For it to be the last shot, last go around it’s going to be something special.”
As it was for the rest of the team, 2013 represented an up-and-down year for the five men up front on offense. There were weeks in which the group looked stout and cohesive; there were one or two games in which the line dealt with its struggles.
But the experience Georgia will lose on its line is irreplaceable in a way. John Theus was willing to admit the transition to next year could be a difficult one without his three senior mentors around.
“A lot of those guys helped me so much last year, brought me a long way. I’ve continued to learn from them,” the sophomore offensive tackle said. “They’ll definitely be missed next year, without a doubt. I love those guys. Last year we didn’t have to send anyone off, this year it’s going to be weird.”
Old No. 11
Aaron Murray’s legacy at Georgia is not over yet.
His offensive coordinator will personally see to it that the senior quarterback does not even come close to thinking about the end of his college days until a bowl game is safely in the books.
“This is what I told him Monday,” Bobo said. “You’re not dead. I’m not hugging you ’til after this season. We’ve got to beat Kentucky.”
Even so, Murray — whose storied journey as a starter deserves a spotlight of its own — has indeed come to the realization that he only has three games left to play as a Bulldog.
Like his fans, he is no stranger to heartbreak through his four years at UGA. He’s dealt with crushing losses and criticisms of his ability to play in “the big game.” But through all of those trials, he says this year’s bunch of battle-hardened seniors will leave the confines of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall and enter the so-called real world far stronger and mature for what they’ve fought through as part of the Georgia football team.
“I think it’s prepared us just for life. To understand you’re gonna have bumps and bruises, you’re going to have tough times and great times,” Murray said. “We’ve had our share of everything. We’ve had 10 straight wins, we’ve been to two straight SEC Championship games, we’ve had just tragedy after tragedy this year with injuries, Hail Marys. You couldn’t even imagine what’s happened to this team this year."
“Even [against Auburn], to come back from 20 points in the fourth quarter against the seventh-ranked team in the country at their place. Most teams would just give up and say the game’s over. Our guys honestly believed that we still had a shot to win that game, and we went out there and almost did.”
He almost did.
Even in the week following one of his finest passing performances as a Georgia Bulldog, Murray, as always, deferred to his teammates.
Maybe some things won't change.