Returning seniors set sights on title

Mark Richt and 15 veteran Georgia football players met with reporters Friday afternoon in the Bulldogs’ team meeting room on campus in Athens, Ga.

The reason for the impromptu news conference? The group of draft-eligible players -- plus backup quarterback Hutson Mason, who had been contemplating a transfer -- wanted to collectively discuss their decisions to return for the 2012 season and their aspirations to contend for the national title.

“There were more guys that I thought were very seriously considering it than usual -- and I think for good reason. I think there’s a bunch of guys that are going to play in the NFL in that group,” said Richt, who lost only junior tight end Orson Charles to the draft among Bulldogs underclassmen. “So when that many went through the process and still wanted to be at Georgia for whatever reason, to me that was the time to celebrate those decisions and to have a positive image for Georgia, have a positive image for these guys personally and to maybe even motivate the rest of the team. Maybe have something exciting for Georgia Bulldog people to enjoy.”

As Richt initially addressed the gathered reporters, 2012 seniors Sanders Commings, Ty Frix, Mike Gilliard, John Jenkins, Abry Jones, Tavarres King, Bacarri Rambo, Christian Robinson, Richard Samuel, Branden Smith, Carlton Thomas, Cornelius Washington, Shawn Williams and rising junior quarterback Aaron Murray lined the wall behind him.

It was a joint statement from the group that, while some of them would have been surefire NFL draft selections, they see the potential within their team to accomplish something special in the fall.

“Coming off the year we just had, with a bunch of brothers who are like, ‘Yo, this is what we want to do,’ it’s like God just placed all these people in my life for a reason,” said Jenkins, a rising senior nose guard. “For us to be together like we were just a moment ago, we pretty much put our future in each other’s hands. Cornelius could have left. B. Smith. Rambo. J.J. [rising junior linebacker Jarvis Jones]. Today goes to show what type of program Georgia has and the effect that Georgia has on young individuals like ourselves.”

Defensive backs Rambo, Commings and Williams all wrestled with their decisions before deciding to return this week. Fellow defensive back Smith was the last member of the group to finalize his decision, waffling even in the final minutes before Friday’s announcement.

“I really just made my decision around about 15 minutes ago,” Smith said. “It was a hard decision. I wasn’t only thinking about myself, I was thinking about my daughter. Just staying one more year is best for me. I can definitely increase my draft status to first round and just do good things. As a team, we can go to the SEC championship one more time and win a national championship. Everything is in our hands.”

While avoiding specifics, Smith said he received a favorable rating from the NFL’s early entry advisory board, which helps underclassman draft prospects get a general idea of where they might be selected. The board’s evaluation -- and his own family situation -- caused Smith to struggle with his choice even more.

“It was a grade that had me thinking that I was going to leave,” Smith said. “But it was a grade that I really think I can get higher next year. That’s one reason why I stayed. First round is what’s in my mind and that’s one thing that wasn’t on my paper -- first round. So increasing my draft status next year is my big thing.”

In the end, Smith decided another season at Georgia would be the best move to reach the lofty draft status he believes is attainable.

More than a dozen of his teammates made similar statements, noting that they are confident a future awaits them in pro football. But in the meantime, they intend to turn their championship aspirations into a reality.

“A lot of us had an opportunity to go play at the next level and do great things, but all of us decided to come back and show it’s not all about us, it’s about the team,” Rambo said. “We can do great things once everybody gets together and has their mind right and just plays hard. The sky’s the limit for us.”