ATHENS -– As Georgia heads toward an Independence Bowl date against one of college football most prolific offenses, many of the Bulldogs' defensive preparations are being handled by two young graduate assistants making about $15,000 a year.
Mitch Doolittle and Todd Hartley, both aspiring coaches, have temporarily assumed many of the duties of the three veteran defensive coaches with six-figure salaries who were fired early this month.
Hartley is overseeing the defensive backs, previously the responsibility of Willie Martinez, and Doolittle the linebackers, previously the focus of John Jancek. Hartley and Doolittle also are overseeing kickoffs, previously handled by Jon Fabris.
"It's a trial by fire," said Doolittle, 25. "It's a great challenge, but with a great challenge comes a great opportunity. We have embraced it. We haven't felt overwhelmed by it all."
Said Hartley, 24: "You'd hope it would look good on a resume, for obvious reasons."
Although titles vary, almost every major college football team has four graduate assistants -- two on offense and two on defense -- who work long hours for little pay to, as Hartley put it, "get a foot in the door" of the coaching profession.
Generally, they handle mundane behind-the-scenes tasks such as breaking down film, preparing scouting reports, assisting in practice drills and working with the scout team.
Such were the responsibilities of Doolittle and Hartley throughout the season. Doolittle worked under Jancek and Hartley under Martinez.
Then, four days after the regular-season finale, coach Mark Richt fired Martinez, Jancek and Fabris. And after all three rejected Richt's offer to stay on the job through the Dec. 28 bowl in Shreveport, La., against Texas A&M, someone had to fill in.
Richt tabbed Doolittle and Hartley, both of whom feel badly that their mentors lost their jobs but see their role as akin to a player stepping in for an injured teammate.
"I keep going back to ‘Step up and make a play,' " said Doolittle, a coach's son. "In this business, that's what it's all about. Coaches, players, it doesn't matter; it's just understood. ... It's not a business where you get coddled. People expect you to step up."
Said Hartley: "For me, it's a great learning experience. But I'm ready."
Both Doolittle, from Ninety Six, S.C., and Hartley, from Gray, Ga., played football in high school. Doolittle also played wide receiver and quarterback at Presbyterian College. Hartley was a football student assistant while attending UGA, where he received a degree in health and physical education in May 2008.
This is the second graduate assistant position for both, Hartley previously working one year at West Virginia and Doolittle two years at UAB. Both are passionately committed to careers in college coaching, with their next step probably being a job as a position coach at a Division I-AA or smaller program.
The graduate assistants are only two or three years older than some of the players, who invariably still call them "Coach Doolittle" and "Coach Hartley."
"Coach Hartley knows what he's doing," safety Reshad Jones said.
"Coach Doolittle ... has picked up on our system really quickly," linebacker Rennie Curran said, "and he is a guy that I feel relates to us well, being young and energetic. ... He has given me tips here and there on how to improve my play and understanding the philosophy of football. I have a lot of confidence in him."
Richt said Hartley and Doolittle have both impressed him as well since being thrust into their temporary roles.
"You can tell they're very excited about the opportunity," Richt said. "They're taking it very, very seriously. ... They're sharp. When the players know a guy has knowledge, they respect that and respond to that."
The firings left only one defensive coach in place -- defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who absorbed Fabris' responsibility for the ends -- and the challenge of a short-handed staff is complicated by Georgia's bowl opponent. Texas A&M ranks fifth in the nation in total offense (465 yards per game) and has scored 30 or more points in nine of 12 games.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Hartley said.
"We're facing adversity as a staff," said Doolittle, sounding like the prototypical coach, "and we've just got to ... find a way."