ATHENS, Ga. – They call it Senior Day, and for a handful of Georgia defensive players making their final starts between the hedges on Saturday it’s come full circle.
Cornerback Sanders Commings, end Cornelius Washington and safety Bacarri Rambo were all red-shirted when they arrived in Athens on the preseason No. 1 team in the nation in 2008. After Saturday’s emphatic career sweep of in-state rival Georgia Tech with a 42-10 beatdown, they have eyes and hearts fixed on leaving Athens with the same rank that greeted them upon arrival.
“To come in No. 1 and leave out No. 1 would be crazy,” said Commings of Westside High. “This is pretty much why I came to Georgia, to play in games like this.”
The No. 3 Bulldogs completed the regular season 11-1 and will play Alabama next Saturday at the Georgia Dome for the Southeastern Conference championship and a likely berth in the BCS title game. It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for a program that when October started was licking it wounds from a drubbing at the hands of South Carolina.
Then again, it’s been a long strange trip for this senior class that has seen more highs and lows than Bulldogs are accustomed to experiencing.
“When I got here we were No. 1 in the nation,” said Washington, who redshirted that 2008 season out of Burke County. “Then we were 8-5 and 6-7. That’s definitely not the kind of thing you come here for. You come here to win games and championships. This is our first real shot at doing something extremely special.”
While Georgia’s offense has been establishing school records with a collection of underclassmen stars like junior quarterback Aaron Murray and true freshmen tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, it’s been the guys playing their final collegiate seasons on defense that have set the tone of this national title quest.
Head coach Mark Richt believes it started when linebacker Jarvis Jones – a fourth-year junior who was good enough to be a high draft pick after last season – opted to stick around for another year with the Bulldogs.
“I think when Jarvis said I’m staying because I love Georgia, I’m staying because I think I can get better and I’m staying because I think we can do something big here, I think it gave everyone else confidence to stick around as well,” said Richt of the handful of fellow defenders who chose to come back for their senior years. “So when everybody else decided to stay they really had a strong vested interest in how this season went.”
One of those guys was Shawn Williams, a safety who could have been earning NFL money this season. It was Williams who publicly called his defensive teammates “soft” after a horrid effort against Kentucky that gave no inkling of a team capable of rallying for a championship shot.
“When Shawn Williams saw it kind of slipping away, he had to say something about it,” said Richt. “So he steps up and challenges everybody – made some guys mad and maybe hurt some guys’ feelings. But I think he just couldn’t stand it, stand what he was seeing. I think everybody respected him for what he did. They may not have liked it, but I think they agreed with his assessment of what was going on and it lit a fire under the guys.”
Georgia’s defense has played at a renewed level ever since, winning a defensive showdown against Florida that turned the tide and dominating everyone since. On Saturday, despite yielding yards to Georgia Tech’s prolific triple option, the first unit kept the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone until it was a sewn-up 42-3 blowout.
“When Shawn spoke up and called us out, we responded to it like men,” said Commings. “No man wants to be called soft. We stepped it up and started playing more physical and playing harder on defense. We had so many returning starters and seniors, it was easy to over-relax sometimes. To have someone like Shawn call us out and recreate an edge was huge for us.”
One of those awakened giants was Rambo, who believes Williams’ comments were a bigger turning point of the season than the loss to South Carolina.
“What happened in Columbia (S.C.), the next week we got run up and down by Kentucky,” he said. “So I think it took Shawn commenting because he called us out and we accepted the challenge. He was just being a brother. He just knew we were better than what we were playing. We needed that.”
Rambo has certainly responded. On Saturday he tied Jake Scott with a school-record 16th career interception, his third in the last five games. But it was his fumble strip of Robert Godhigh at the 5 and return to the 50 on Georgia Tech’s opening offensive possession that set the tone for everything that came after.
Jackets coach Paul Johnson even called it “a killer.”
This was not entirely how Rambo envisioned it going after he decided to let the NFL wait. But after being forced to sit out the first four games of his senior year for a failed drug test in the offseason, he’s is proud of what he and his Bulldog mates have done with their second chance.
“This is what we signed that dotted line for, to come here and win a national championship,” he said. “Just to have the opportunity to go play this (SEC championship) game this week and have a chance to go to Miami to play for the national championship is such a great honor. This is what we’ve prepared for, what we’ve been dreaming of. I know we’ve got what it takes but we have to have that mindset that we can’t leave that field with and ‘L.’ We’ve got to get a ‘W.’”
If the Bulldogs have what it takes to beat defending national champion Alabama next week and book a title shot in Miami, Richt believes it will be on the shoulders of those senior leaders who have restored this program back to where it was when they arrived.
“The seniors this year really did want to take it in their hands,” he said. “When your seniors are getting involved like that as leaders it makes a big difference. It was a very player driven type of a season, which is what we hope for as coaches. Just really proud of them.”