Just 18 short months ago, Georgia had posted back-to-back SEC East titles and was on the brink of winning the SEC Championship Game and securing a spot in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game versus Notre Dame.
One year later, the Bulldogs are coming off an injury-riddled 8-5 season that served as the swan song for record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray and another reminder that Georgia's talented yet under-achieving defense needs help.
Redshirt senior Hutson Mason will step in for Murray in 2014 and find a wealth of talent to work with on the offense. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was lured away from Florida State after Todd Grantham bolted for Louisville and found eight returning starters on defense, including the first- and-third leading tacklers in the SEC—Ramik Wilson (133) and Amarlo Herrera (112).
What will 2014 look like between the hedges? Georgia head coach Mark Richt went one-on-one with B/R to discuss the season.
Bleacher Report: You mentioned in your press conference after your spring game that quarterback Hutson Mason, who went 18-of-27 for 241 yards and a touchdown, actually looked better in the other scrimmages. Just how good can he be?
Mark Richt: Well, surrounded by outstanding teammates, I think he can be very good. He made a comment to somebody in the media that I was really impressed with. They were talking about following Murray and all the records he broke and all of that. Mason said, 'You know, I can't really break any records, but the one thing I can do is win a championship.'
He wasn't saying anything bad about Murray; he was just saying that his goal isn't to break records, it's to win a championship. I think that's his mindset. He has nothing else going through his mind other than doing what he can do to help the team win. That's pretty impressive.
B/R: In the spring game, he looked very much like Aaron Murray, especially on the back-shoulder fade. How much did Murray rub off on him?
MR: We train our quarterbacks to put the ball where our receiver has the best chance of winning. You have to gauge that by what you see, and if you see our guys two yards past the guy, obviously you try to lay it out. If our guy's inside, we're going to throw it inside. If our guy is on the outside and the DB has him cut off, we're going to throw the back-shoulder ball. We're constantly coaching and teaching that.
He has a really good feel for it as well. He's seen a lot of it with the games with Murray, but we've been doing it as a group for a long time.
B/R: How much will that veteran group of wide receivers help Mason, and what do you expect from Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley coming off of injuries?
MR: He has a veteran receiving corps and those guys really understand the system. They're good route-runners. They're strong ball-catchers. Mason's going to have some running backs who are just...tremendous. The O-line will do a very good job. And then, we believe that our defense and special teams are playing better than a year ago, so he's going to be surrounded by a lot of really good players. I think he'll do a good job of handling that responsibility of getting the ball to the right guys in the right place.
B/R: You mentioned the running backs. No Heisman campaign for Todd Gurley this year, which is the way you've approached star players for a few years. Is he the best running back you've had at Georgia?
MR: You know, there's been some good ones. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. This guy, Gurley, he's a very special talent. If he's in great condition and he stays healthy, I just can't help but think he'll have a tremendous amount of production and be a very strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
B/R: One of the guys you have coming in is true freshman Nick Chubb. I'm not sure if you saw the pictures of him from last week at the state of Georgia track championship, but he looks like a man right now. What are the chances of Chubb and fellow freshman Sony Michel playing this year?
MR: Oh yeah, I think there's a good chance. Anybody who can go out there and be productive for us, we want to get them in the game and find a way to help us win. We can't wait to see what they can do and give them the opportunity. I saw the picture of Chubb running and I tell you, he looks like a track guy. Giant...I'm not really sure what he looked like...but it was impressive.
B/R: Obviously your defense has been hit or miss these last few years, but now Jeremy Pruitt is stepping in. What were some of the things he did this spring that really changed, and what pieces of that puzzle are left to put together this fall?
MR: I won't talk so much about change as much as how he goes about his business. He's a very good teacher, and all of our defensive coaches—we have four new ones including Jeremy—they've all coached high school ball, and they've all coached on a national championship collegiate football team as well. They're very good teachers of fundamental football, and that's a big part of what's important to us as a defense. The hustle is very important as well, as well as trying to be very sound schematically.
The big thing is fundamentals and really playing hard.
B/R: Your linebackers may be the best in the country with the leading tackler and third-leading tackler in the SEC coming back. How has Pruitt's arrival impacted what they do, and what do you expect from your guys this year?
MR: Well, quite frankly, I'm not all that concerned if our guys lead the league in tackling, because that means they're playing a lot of defensive plays. If we move back in the pack, that probably means some good things for our defense in terms of getting off the field.
I think those guys will come back with a lot of experience. Leonard Floyd obviously made an impact as a freshman for us. Jordan Jenkins, on the other side of him, a lot of times, has had his moments. Our linebacking corps in general, inside and out, we have a pretty good batch of guys who will hopefully lead us to a really stout D.
B/R: Shaq Wiggins transferred after spring, and you recently moved defensive back Brenden Langley to wide receiver. What's the story behind that move?
MR: He's very fast and athletic. We felt like he might be able to make a bigger impact for us at wide receiver than at defensive back.
B/R: Is it safe to assume that, since some pieces are moving around to other positions and schools, that some of the pieces of the secondary are falling into place?
MR: Yeah, I think so, but we don't have anybody who's nailed down a spot in the defensive backfield right now, quite frankly. We're going to see what these new arrivals can do. We have four defensive backs coming in who we feel can compete right away and give us a chance to get better.
Gosh, I tell you, I'll bet we don't know who's starting in the defensive backfield until, maybe a week prior to the first game would be my guess. It will probably be pretty deep into camp.
B/R: You have the strictest substance abuse policy in the SEC, and your AD Greg McGarity told me a few months ago that he wants a uniform policy within the conference, but that it likely won't happen. Because of that, sometimes your program gets branded as a little lax on discipline. Does that bother you?
MR: We're comfortable with our policies here at Georgia. You know, we want our guys to know there's accountability when it comes to that. We want our guys to be healthy and we want our guys to do right. We're going to hold them accountable. Sometimes, in doing so, if you use playing time as a way to discipline, then it becomes a very public thing. Because of that, you may take a [perception] hit.
The bottom line is that we love our guys and we want them to do right. We're willing to discipline them with the thing that means the most to them, and that's their playing time.
B/R: We're entering a new era this year with the four-team College Football Playoff. Is there anything that you're overly excited about regarding this new format, or anything that you're apprehensive about?
MR: I'm excited about it. I think it's going to bring a tremendous amount of excitement. With it being a four-team playoff, I don't think it will disrupt much of what's going on with the bowl system. There's a lot of good in the bowl system. I'd be concerned about going too deep in terms of number of teams in a playoff, but right now, four is tremendous and I think it will be highly successful.
B/R: Clearly your charity work is something that means a lot to you and you devote a lot of your time to. What does your future look like from a philanthropic standpoint and how busy does your offseason calendar get?
MR: Well, coaching is a mission. Coaching is a way to influence young people in a positive way. It helps people grow into becoming good husbands and fathers and leaders. It's a tremendous honor and opportunity, and I think we have a responsibility as coaches to make a difference in the lives of these guys. I can't really think of a better thing to do with my time with that.
We're not going anywhere this year, but we've been to Honduras on a few occasions and done some mission work there. One offseason I did a USO-type tour. Myself and a few other coaches went to Southeast Asia to visit troops and just let them know that we love them, appreciate them and we believe, as coaches, that they're the true heroes and not so much the athletes of our sport. They get the hero designation sometimes for doing something great on the field of play, but nothing like what our troops do for our country.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.