ATHENS, Ga. -- Christian Robinson and his Georgia teammates were instructed to block out the noise.
Noise that began well before the 2011 season and bellowed throughout Athens immediately following Georgia’s 0-2 start. The veteran linebacker left Twitter for a week because of all the “hateful” comments he received -- mostly from overzealous Georgia fans.
Things reached a boiling point for Robinson when he saw a picture of a distraught Mark Richt with his headset on the ground during the South Carolina game taped to a professor’s door in Georgia’s Terry College of Business. On it, Robinson said someone wrote something to the effect of “This is like the beginning of the end.”
Every day after his management class, Robinson walked by that picture, taking it personally each time.
Robinson watched as part of a fan base that was supposed to be supportive had turned to its nasty side and it hurt. So Robinson and his teammates channeled that rage. The disrespect became a motivator. The noise became an advantage.
Georgia reeled off 10 straight wins and ended up in the SEC championship game sans picture.
“Ten weeks later, where are those posters and where are those hateful tweets, now?” said Robinson who appeared in 12 games last fall, making four starts, recorded 47 tackles with 6.5 for loss and recovered a fumble.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2012 and Georgia is dealing with a new type of noise -- noise of the hype machine.
Georgia returns 15 starters (nine on defense and six on offense) and 49 lettermen. Only two defenders are gone from the nation’s fifth-ranked defense and quarterback Aaron Murray could be an early Heisman contender. Georgia should enter the fall ranked in the top 10 and will have BCS aspirations strapped to its name.
As spring winds down, that sort of talk is merely a blip on the Bulldogs’ radar, but it’s something this team will have to deal with more as the season approaches. So far, Richt has shielded his players from the noise, but once his hands aren’t around them this offseason, he hopes they’ll be smart enough to ignore it.
When asked about maintaining his team’s focus, Richt was reminded of the 2008 team that entered the year No. 1. That team had star power, like Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Mohamed Massaquoi, A.J. Green, Rennie Curran and Geno Atkins.
Stafford and Moreno had Heisman aspirations and the entire team expected BCS fame. However, none of it came. Robinson, who was a freshman then, said selfishness and immaturity lingered throughout the team, as Georgia lost three games that season.
Richt said the 2008 team didn’t have the veteran leadership 2012 does. As many as 14 starters were underclassmen in 2008, while 2012 will be filled with vets.
“We have to understand that we have to earn it and nothing's going to be given to us,” Richt said. “We just have to wait and see.
“I hope they’re not believing the hype. I have to make sure they understand that they gotta earn everything they get and I can reference 2008.”
Robinson said this team is smarter and more mature than 2008. Their minds are clearer and their bodies are better. This team has handled adversity, going from an embarrassing 6-7 to a win away from a BCS birth. The focus is right with these Dawgs.
“This is a totally different team,” Robinson said. “You don’t read your press clippings and start believing.”
However, more adversity is on the horizon for the Bulldogs. Georgia will be short staffed to begin the season as defensive starters Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Branden Smith and Alec Ogletree were suspended for poor off-field behavior.
The distraction of having four defenders out -- three being a part of an already thin secondary -- has truly frustrated Richt and his players, but in a twisted way, Robinson said, losing those players will help the Bulldogs band together even more. Adversity brings the good teams together, he said, and Robinson sees this team working harder knowing it will be down early.
Richt said there have been private meetings to address the boneheaded decisions that have hurt Georgia and expects “many more” before the fall. Murray has also taken it upon himself to be more outspoken about these issues. In the last few weeks, he’s seen a more levelheaded group and hopes it carries over to the fall.
“Our guys understand that you can’t be doing anything too crazy right now,” Murray said. “This could be a very special season. This could be a season you remember for the rest of your life.
“If we work hard, the sky’s the limit for us.”
It’s still way too early to tell what kind of team Georgia will have this fall, but it’s hard not to make the Dawgs a preseason favorite in the SEC East. The schedule sets up nicely (no Alabama, Arkansas or LSU again), the staff is settled and just about everyone is back.
It’s a recipe for success, but then again, so was 2008.