Billy Bennett and his granddaughter Frances McAfee talk with Georgia football Mark Richt, right, and men’s basketball coach Mark Fox, left, Monday night at the UGA Alumni Association banquet at the Hilton Garden Inn. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)
ALBANY — Georgia football coach Mark Richt crouched into the chair in a small conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn and thought hard about a question a reporter asked about his quarterback.
For the first time since 2010, Richt will have a quarterback not named Aaron Murray start the season when the Georgia Bulldogs entertain Clemson in the opener on August 30.
And Richt said it’s going to feel a bit strange.
“Aaron was really solid for us,” Richt said of his four-year starter, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the Kentucky game last November.
“He was a guy you could count on in every way, shape and form.”
Richt and UGA men’s basketball coach Mark Fox were in town as the guests of Georgia’s Alumni Association Monday night. While the Bulldog coach and fans will miss Murray, who was drafted by Kansas City in the fifth round on Friday, Richt said Hutson Mason will keep the fans excited.
Mason started the final two games for the Bulldogs, including leading Georgia back from a 20-0 deficit to defeat Georgia Tech 41-34 in overtime in the regular-season finale.
He started in the Gator Bowl, where he passed for 320 yards and a touchdown in a 24-19 loss to Nebraska. Richt said the thing that impresses him the most about the fifth-year senior is his commitment to the program.
“He’s had plenty of opportunities to leave the program and go somewhere else where he could have started,” Richt said. “But he chose to stay with the team.”
The coach expressed his excitement about the 2014 squad, expected to challenge for the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. Some preseason publications believe the Bulldogs have the talent to win the SEC.
Sixteen starters return, including eight on defense. That number decreased last week when cornerback Shaq Wiggins announced his intention to transfer.
Six starters return on offense, including center David Andrews and tackle John Theus.
Two of Mason’s top targets return at wide receiver, including Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. Tailback Todd Gurley, a preseason Heisman contender, also returns.
In addition, the Bulldogs will be getting back several players who were lost to season-ending injuries last year, including tailback Keith Marshall, flanker Malcolm Mitchell and former Mitchell County standout Justin Scott-Wesley at split end.
“Hutson is going to be surrounded by a very good football team,” Richt said. “He’s going to have some veterans back at receiver and tight end and some better (running) backs. Plus, a lot of players are back on defense and kicker and punter. There are a lot of ingredients.
“We’ve got to go into every game expecting to win. I’m not going to put any ceiling on the success these guys could have, but at the same time, I’m not going to go off and predict a national championship. We have to go earn it.”
Fox guided Georgia basketball to its first 20-win season in nine years, finished tied for second in the SEC with national runner-up Kentucky and narrowly missed an NCAA Tournament berth.
With four starters back, including leading scorers Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, Fox believes the foundation was laid for the Bulldogs to be strong in 2014-15.
“We felt we took a step forward,” Fox said. “I feel like we have a chance to take it to the next level next season.”
Fox said he and Richt were making several visits to Bulldog clubs across the state. He believes the success the football program is having should filter its way to the basketball court.
“The fan support is up, the energy is up and the basketball team is better,” Fox said. “We feel like all the things are going in the right direction. We’ve just got to have a great summer and keep building on it.”