4 Characteristics of Greatness: Resiliency

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4 Characteristics of Greatness: Resiliency

Photo: Rob Saye

Most head football coaches in the country throw around the word resilient. Given, to have a successful football season, teams must learn how to cope with internal and external challenges as well as overcome inevitable injuries, suspensions, expectations, and other various outside noise.

The University of Georgia came into the 2022 season as a top five team who most expected to compete for the College Football Playoff. Few, however, picked the Bulldogs to win it all. ESPN’s four main college football analysts: Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard, and David Pollack all picked Alabama to repeat as SEC Champions. Herbstreit and Corso had Georgia making the playoffs but losing in the semi-finals. 





However, if you listened to the way Kirby Smart’s players talked after the National Championship game, they were under the impression that experts expected the Bulldogs to go 7-5 or 6-6. While this might not be the case, there were certainly some college football social media pages with solid credibility that compared 2022 Georgia to 2020 LSU. During that wild Covid season, the Tigers finished 5-5 after losing 14 players to the NFL draft. Georgia lost 15 players to the draft, most of which were on the defensive side of the ball. Besides having a similar number of players drafted after winning the title, there is no comparison between the two SEC teams’ title defense.  Before the season even started, it was axiomatic that Georgia was going to need to show resiliency and toughness to achieve the goal of competing for back-to-back titles.

Once September 3 rolled around, the Bulldogs didn’t need long to demonstrate to college football that despite their draft departures, they weren’t rebuilding, they were reloading. After a dominant performance against Oregon to open the season, the Bulldogs cruised to victories against Samford and South Carolina before facing a couple of unexpected tests against Kent State and Missouri.

Let’s start with the Kent State game. Georgia came into the game 44.5-point favorites. They had just come off a dominant win against quality SEC opposition in the South Carolina Gamecocks and returned home to Athens where most expected they would not only win, but cover. After Brock Bowers took the second play of the game 75 yards on a reverse sweep for a touchdown, Georgia was surely going to cruise to victory. However, after a few uncharacteristic Ladd McConkey fumbles and drops, as well as an inability to score touchdowns in the redzone, Kent State found themselves down just 10 points in the fourth quarter. 





Fast forward one week later. The Bulldogs traveled to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers. It was a night game in a rocking environment, and Georgia once again struggled. After a disastrous first drive where the Dawgs went backwards nine yards before punting, they followed up the next drive with a fumble. It wasn’t long before Georgia found themselves behind 13 points and without star defensive lineman Jalen Carter. After a pair of 1 yard touchdowns from Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards, eventually, the Dawgs were able to escape the Tigers with a 26-22 victory.  

Now, for those who have followed Georgia football for years, there was a feeling that crept back into our brains reminiscent of games during the 1990s and 2000s. We had to ask ourselves: Is this the game where we blow it? Is this the game that derails our season? After praising the Dawgs’ performance in the first three games, analysts started questioning whether Georgia was truly an elite team. Thankfully, a man named Kirby Smart holds the reins in Athens and adeptly used any slight to fuel and motivate his hungry team. Smart, who works tirelessly coaching and recruiting, had the assistance of perhaps the most revered and respected coaching staff in all of college football.  While others outside the program may have doubted Georgia’s chances to repeat, few inside the program had any doubt.  

How about the Georgia-Florida game this year? Georgia throttled to a 28-3 lead against their archrivals. Stetson Bennett and Brock Bowers were locked in to start the game and the rushing attack of Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards were torching Florida’s defensive line. However, late in the third quarter, Georgia found themselves up just eight points as the score had become 28-20 after multiple Bulldog turnovers. Not only was Georgia’s lead dwindling, but star edge rusher and team captain, Nolan Smith, left the game with a torn pectoral muscle. Georgia, however, stepped on the gas and pulled away for a comfortable 42-20 victory.

Throughout the season, Georgia certainly faced the type of adversity and challenges that other title-defending teams may not have overcome. But this Georgia team had tasted winning it all the year before and was motivated to not only repeat, but to do so in an unblemished fashion.  Georgia’s championship culture is a topic that was heavily referenced through the later parts of the season. That culture is why Malaki Starks chased down a Missouri player and tackled him at the 1-yard line which forced a field goal instead of a touchdown. This type of perseverance is what kept it just a two-possession game instead of a three-possession game, making a comeback plausible. That culture also defines why Ladd McConkey, despite playing the worst first half of his life against Kent State, managed to make huge catches in the second half, allowing Georgia to put together scoring drives and pull away late. It is also why Nolan Smith came back out on the field to be with his teammates on the sideline against Florida, helping show strength and encouragement when the game got tight. 

These same championship, never-say-die traits displayed throughout a long season also explain why Georgia was able to overcome late season adversity when they found themselves down 14 points against an uber-talented Ohio State team in the CFP-Semi Peach Bowl. As they showed all season, no matter the score, no matter who was on the field, our Dawgs competed. They fought when they were down and out, they showed leadership on the sideline, and they played for one another. Smart says he preached “connection” to this Bulldog team. That connection, coupled with a will to hunt and not be hunted, embodied the championship mentality of the 2022 Dawgs.

Resiliency Through Tragedy

On January 14, 2023, Bulldog Nation gathered in Sanford Stadium one last time to celebrate our 2022 national championship football team. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Chilly, but the excitement and pride in the air was palpable. Thousands lined up in red and black just to catch a glimpse of Stetson Bennett and company one final time before the dreaded eight month wait for college football to return. Key members of the team spoke to the crowd, thanking them for their continued support and explaining how grateful they were to be Georgia Bulldogs. 

Less than 24 hours later, we woke that Sunday morning to the devastating news that Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy had passed away after a terrible car accident around 2:45 a.m. Sunday morning. 

Willock was a 6-7, 335-pound guard for the Bulldogs. Not only was he a mammoth on the offensive line and an incredible run blocker, he was a true student athlete who was an honor roll student with all As. Devin appeared in every game this season, starting in two. Most notably, against Tennessee, Willock manhandled a Tennessee defensive line after getting the start. 

 In a terrific article published by Jeff Sentell on DawgNation, it was brought to light how much Willock loved UGA. Sentell reported that John Whitehead, his former high school coach, said Willock was texting him talking about going for a third straight championship. Willock said he was “going to be a Dawg as long as Kirby Smart wanted him to be.” 

In today’s world of college football, with NIL and the transfer portal, most players of Willock’s size, stature, and hype would have entered the transfer portal looking for a big check or endorsement deals with extensive playing time attached. Instead, Willock redshirted, bought into the Georgia process, and developed into a phenomenal offensive guard. Not only did he buy into the program, but he fell in love with the same university we all cherish. He wanted to suit up on Saturdays in red and black with a “G” on the side of his helmet and go to war for Kirby Smart’s team. 

Willock was loved tremendously by his teammates. Connection is a trait Kirby Smart constantly preaches in order to have a successful team. These young men become brothers and that’s important to understand. This level of connection helps them achieve not just their on the field goals, but gives them friendships and relationships that will carry on long after playing careers have ended. 

Chandler LeCroy was a whole lot more than just a member of the recruiting staff for Georgia football. LeCroy was an intelligent, young, passionate woman who shared a special connection with Georgia football players. Javon Bullard, Jordan Davis, and Kirby Smart were quick to post messages mourning the loss of Chandler. Javon has posted multiple pictures of himself with Chandler as well as a Georgia jersey with the number 98 on the back with a name plate that reads “Chandler.” Coach Smart’s tweet reads: “Gone far too soon. Chandler, I will always remember you for your kind heart.” Even Dylan Raiola, a 5-star quarterback who is the No. 1 overall rated player in the 2024 recruiting class has changed his Twitter profile picture to one of himself and Chandler together on Raiola’s recruiting visit to Georgia. In his bio, it reads “#chandlerlecroy.” 

It goes without saying that Chandler LeCroy and Devin Willock’s impact on this football team will continue for years to come. They were beautiful people who represented all things positive about the University of Georgia. 

The Georgia football program will play next season with heavy hearts. Devin would most likely have been the starter at guard and Chandler would still have been connecting with players and highly touted recruits. The Bulldogs are going to have to find a way to once again be resilient. While the team has proven time after time that they are capable of overcoming numerous challenges on the field, it will take time to heal from this terrible tragedy. Chandler and Devin will undoubtedly be looking down from above and cheering on the Dawgs with their infectious smiles. May those two beautiful souls rest in peace.





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