Athens, Ga.—On March 19 Kirby Smart, 43, will begin his fourth spring football practice as the head coach at the University of Georgia.
Smart was 8-5 in his rookie season (2016). In the past two seasons Georgia has:
**-- Gone 24-5, played in two SEC championship games (winning one), and one national championship game (a 26-23 loss in overtime).
**--Traveled to Notre Dame for the first time in history and won.
**-- Beat Oklahoma in overtime at the Rose Bowl to advance to the CFP National championship game.
**--Recruited the No. 1 and No. 2 classes in the nation.
Georgia’s five losses in two years have been to No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Alabama, No. 10 Auburn (on the road), No. 13 LSU (on the road), and No. 15 Texas (Sugar Bowl).
Not bad. But among those five losses are two to Alabama—one for the national championship and one for the SEC championship—that were painful beyond measure for Bulldog fans.
With quarterback Jake Fromm returning along with a bunch of veteran talent, there is reason to believe that Georgia will again win the SEC East and challenge Alabama for the championship. Before turning the page to 2019, I recently sat down with Smart to discuss a variety of topics, including what happened against Texas in the Sugar Bowl:
Q. In 2018 Georgia won 11 games, lost a close game to Alabama for the SEC championship, and made a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where you had a close loss to Texas. What was your ultimate takeaway from last season?
Smart: “We just didn’t finish. We really didn’t hit our stride until about mid-season. In our games with Missouri, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt we played sloppy but about Florida (Oct. 27) we started clicking and started getting better each week.”
Q. What went wrong late against Alabama?
Smart: “We played well for the most part against Alabama but we didn’t finish the game….for whatever reason. They made some plays and we didn’t have the hob-nail boot mentality (that said) ‘We’ve got them on the ropes, let’s knock them out.’ We didn’t do it.
“From that point on, when we didn’t do that (beat Alabama) it was a struggle. We didn’t practice great for Texas. We practiced hard but we didn’t prepare and have the kind of passion we needed and that falls on us as coaches. Texas played harder than us.”
Q. Was it difficult for your team to focus after Alabama? It’s a hard position when you miss out on the playoffs after a tough loss.
Smart: “I’ve been there twice when I was at Alabama that when you went from playing for everything to playing for the Sugar Bowl championship. That (winning the Sugar Bowl) should be enough. If you’re a competitor and you have inner drive and you have ‘want to’…..
“We’ve can all make excuses for players being out or juniors coming out early or injuries and all that. It doesn’t matter. You’re playing Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
“You get over your wounds. Obviously they did a better job. I do think them having nine seniors on defense speaks volumes as to who they are.”
Q. In an age where college football is so focused on the playoffs, is it hard to convince guys 18, 19, and 20 years old that playing in a New Year’s Day bowl is still a big thing?
Smart: “They don’t see the Sugar Bowl as you and I do. But that’s no excuse. That (getting the players ready) is our job as coaches. It was an opportunity to play in one of the best bowl games of all time.”
Q. A total of 14 members of Georgia’s 2019 signing class are already in school. It used to be only a handful of guys enrolled early. What has changed?
Smart: “Initially the early enrollees were built around the quarterbacks. Guys felt like they needed to get into school early and start picking up the offense. It was one or two guys.
“Then it got to be more and more guys who were really good students and could get through with their school work early and get started.
“Now it’s ‘I’ve got to get out in three years and get to the NFL.’ So whether I’m a great student or not I’m going to get through high school early.”
Q. So what’s the effect of all this?
Smart: “It speeds up the entire process. I expect to play as a freshman because I enrolled early. I expect to be done in three (years). So we have more mid-year enrollees than ever and we have more early outs—139—than ever. And we still know there are only 64 spots in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.”
Q. What has been the biggest effect on your recruiting organization?
Smart: It has sped up our evaluation of players. Your official visits used to be in December and January and now they have to be during the season and in-season official visits are really hard. There is a lot going on. You have to sign almost all of your class in December and the deadline for (juniors declaring for) the NFL is in January. Now January becomes like June in the sense that you start working on your next class.”
Q. What do you think of the proposed adjustment to the targeting rule, where the replay official will have to have clear video evidence for the call to be enforced?
Smart: “It’s a subjective call and it’s a difficult call. Based on what I understand is that if the rule passes (on Aprill 17) we’ll be erring on the side of the kid. I think that’s a good thing.”