David Pollack seems almost too good to be true. He's adaptable: In his first two years at Georgia he moved from fullback to defensive tackle and finally to defensive end, where he was the 2002 SEC Player of the Year. He is principled: This spring he respectfully declined to pose for Playboy's All-America team, out of concern that he would offend parishioners of the Athens-area churches at which he likes to speak. He smiles incessantly, skims personal-growth books before going to bed and frequently skips onto and off the field during games. So where's the dark side?
"Well, he does get to talking sometimes," says quarterback David Greene, Pollack's best friend of 15 years. "He'll get on the field and start yapping about how he's faster, stronger, better than me."
If ever the Bulldogs needed a headliner known for his competitiveness, confidence and strength of character, this is the year. The football program, which in 2002 under second-year coach Mark Richt went 13-1 and won its first SEC championship in 20 years, suffered a black eye this spring when five players were suspended from the team after being arrested for marijuana possession, four more were suspended for breaking unspecified team rules and nine (one of whom was also in the pot bust) were disciplined by the team for selling their SEC championship rings. The suspended players will miss from one to three games this fall. (As first-time offenders, those charged with marijuana possession were given a pretrial diversion by an Athens-Clarke County municipal court judge and ordered to perform 30 hours of community service. Because its rule book was unclear on the subject, the NCAA did not punish the players who sold their rings to a jewelry broker.)
On June 8 coaches and players gathered for a two-hour clear-the-air session. "Everyone got a turn in the hot seat and said their piece," says Pollack. "It's been put to rest." Team unity has been the Bulldogs' focus ever since. Five mornings a week this summer Pollack led his fellow defensive linemen in a two-mile run in an Athens park. And in between weightlifting and summer classes, roommates Pollack and Greene turned their two-story apartment—in which they installed an Xbox on each floor—into a 24-hour gathering place for teammates. "Things get a little sloppy with everyone rolling in and out," Pollack says cheerfully. "We have to be kind of like parents."
With only 11 starters returning, including six seniors, juniors Pollack and Greene will help serve as elders on the field as well. "Along with having their priorities straight, they have a commitment that's important for our young players to see," says defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Greene has steadily improved since he was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2001, and Pollack exploded onto the scene last September with an interception in the South Carolina end zone that was the Bulldogs' only touchdown in a 13-7 win. Combining indefatigable effort with clutch play, Pollack finished the season with 102 tackles, 14 sacks, 35 quarterback pressures and seven passes defended—as well as a reputation as the team's most vocal leader. "David shows uncommon strength and purpose on the field," says VanGorder. "He demands the best of his teammates."
But Pollack puts the most pressure on himself. "He'll do something right nine out of 10 times and be so mad about that 10th time," says Greene. "He'll be out on the field until midnight getting it right." When asked which areas of his game he felt he needed to improve upon, Pollack said he didn't know where to start. "I need to work on my understanding of the system, my hands, my hustle and my fundamentals," he says. "There are so many things I think I'm capable of."
The same can be said for his team. The Bulldogs might seem too young to improve on last season's accomplishments, but the strength of key personnel will keep them a force in the SEC. Along with Greene and Pollack, Georgia features tailback Tony Milton and receiver Michael Johnson, who showed enough promise in 2002 backup duty to compensate for the departure of Musa Smith and Terrence Edwards, respectively, to the NFL. While acknowledging that the Bulldogs need to rebuild along the offensive line and at linebacker, Pollack points out that it was the D-line that was projected to be a liability before last season. Says Pollack, "I'd love to show that, despite all this team has gone through, we can be as successful as ever."
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