4 Characteristics of Greatness: Toughness

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4 Characteristics of Greatness: Toughness

Take a stroll through the dazzling new football facility on the Georgia campus and you’ll see it in writing: The four character traits that Kirby Smart drilled into the minds and hearts of every player on his 2022 football team.

Toughness, Connection, Resiliency and Composure!





Safe to say, these Bulldogs bought into their head coach’s personal directives pretty well, bringing the Georgia program the 2022 SEC Championship, a second consecutive national championship and, the first 15-0 season record in the school’s illustrious red and black history.

In this space, we’re zeroing in on the first character trait listed.

How tough was this Georgia team which, as you are well aware, had to replace 15 starters that were taken in the 2022 NFL draft? From a 2021 team that ranks among the Bulldogs’ all-time greatest, one that captured the school’s first national championship in four decades while going 14-1 … the only setback coming to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, a loss that Georgia would avenge with the 33-18 pasting of the Tide in the national title game on January 10 in Indianapolis.





A glance at four games in the 2022 campaign gives us great clarity as to this team’s toughness.

The first is the September 3 season opener with a pre-season 11th-ranked Oregon team in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. What many thought would be a down-to-the-wire battle between two highly-ranked opponents didn’t exactly turn out that way. Long-time Georgia observers commented after the 3rd-ranked Bulldogs’ 49-3 shellacking of the Ducks, playing their first game under head coach Dan Lanning who only the year before served as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, that this may have indeed been the most impressive performance a Bulldog team had ever posted. One game in and already, the talk of a second straight natty had begun heating up.

After soundly dispatching Samford, South Carolina and Kent State, the unbeaten Bulldogs then traveled to Columbia, Missouri on October 1 – and ran into a buzzsaw! Georgia was heavily favored to topple a Missouri Tiger team that stood just 2-3 on the season and 0-2 in the SEC. But someone apparently failed to get that message to the Tigers as they repeatedly frustrated the Georgia offense with a fierce pass rush on Stetson Bennett and surged to a 13-0 lead on the Bulldogs early in the second quarter. Then the Mizzou lead blinked to 16-3 before Jack Podlesny’s field goal trimmed the Tigers’ lead to 16-6 at the halftime break.

But, backs to the wall and staring their first defeat squarely in the face, the Bulldogs pulled within 19-12 at the start of the final quarter. Then, with Bennett nailing some key completions and the Dawgs’ Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards-led running game taking over (107 yards rushing in the fourth quarter), Georgia outscored the home team by 14-3 in that period to leave the Show-Me state with a grueling 26-22 win. Difficult as it was, this game not only demonstrated the team’s toughness but a great resiliency also.

A third illustration of both the Bulldogs’ mental and physical toughness came on the afternoon of November 5. Back Between the Hedges of Sanford Stadium, the game with the also unbeaten Tennessee Volunteers was being billed as maybe the biggest ever on Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium. That same week Tennessee, which led the nation in scoring and total offense, had leaped over Georgia to take the No. 1 spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings. But that didn’t seem to sit well with the Bulldogs, who were still carrying the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll. Georgia controlled this game from the start. Bennett and his receivers were clicking and the defense was never better as the Dawgs surged to a 24-6 halftime lead and then coasted to a 27-13 manhandling of the Vols. A Tennessee offense that came in averaging over 500 yards per game and right at 50 points per outing was checked to those 13 points and 289 yards total offense.

And then how about New Year’s Eve night in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium? With the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl hosting the CFP semifinals between top-ranked Georgia and 4th-seeded Ohio State, this was a football game that left the 78,000 or so capacity crowd on the edge of its seats the entire contest. Led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, the Buckeyes seemed to hold the upper hand most of the game. They built a 21-7 lead on the Bulldogs, only to see Georgia fight back to surge ahead 24-21 … before Ohio State came right back down the field in the waning minutes of the first half to go up 28-24 at the break.

A shaky third quarter only put the Bulldogs into a bigger hole and early in the final period, it was Ohio State pushing its advantage to 14 points. It was at this point that Georgia fans had to be thinking about canceling their flights to the national championship game on January 9 in Los Angeles. But just when all was seemingly being lost, here came that toughness and resiliency once more from these ’22 Dawgs. With Bennett, Brock Bowers and the UGA receivers putting together one of the biggest two-minute touchdown drives – covering 72 yards — in the school’s history, Georgia finally wrested the lead from the Buckeyes when Bennett drilled a 10-yard touchdown strike to A.D. Mitchell in the left corner of the end zone. Only 52 seconds remained when Podlesny’s kick made for a 42-41 Bulldog lead. And all Red and Black faithful everywhere know the ending of this story … Stroud running the Buckeyes down inside the Georgia 35-yard line before Ohio State’s winning 50-yard field goal attempt sailed considerably wide left in the final seconds. Georgia had survived a knock-down, drag-out thriller and was on its way to face TCU in a quest for a second straight natty crown. 

Matt Stinchcomb knows all about football toughness. Stinchcomb played down in the trenches for Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs in the late 1990s, being named an All-America offensive tackle in both 1997 and 1998 … a unanimous selection in ’98. Stinchcomb is now Saturday college football game analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network.

“We (SEC Network) did three of Georgia’s games this year, Samford, Kent State and Vanderbilt,” he said. “And I was there for the SEC championship, Peach Bowl semifinal and the national championship game.”

So, what did Stinchcomb think about this amazing 2022 Bulldog edition, which defied all the odds to run the 15-game table and bring a second consecutive national championship trophy back to the Butts-Mehre building?

“It seemed this team created its own adversity at times,” he said. “They did not play very well at Missouri, they did not play very well at times versus Ohio State. But this team, unlike last year’s team where it took getting punched in the mouth in the SEC Championship Game (by Alabama) and seemingly not knowing how best to respond … it seemed like that was a shock to their system a year ago. This year, you think about the third quarter against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl, and it’s not that dissimilar to the flurry of points at the end of the half and the beginning of the second half in the SEC championship last year. This team, it responded in fine fashion. They get a stop; they get the drive in under two minutes to score and go ahead and then just enough defense to slow Ohio State down enough to force a long field goal that was ultimately missed.

“This team seemingly was better prepared mentally for that,” Stinchcomb said. “I do think enough of those players had the luxury of having seen and experienced the SEC Championship Game a year ago.”

Stinchcomb recalled a quote from former Georgia player Pat Dye, when he was head coach at Auburn.

“Coach Dye said ‘practice is hell at Auburn.’ But when you look at these teams we have to play in games, it has to be hell because you’ve got to get your team ready to face the Georgia’s and Alabama’s,” he said. “Those teams demand a level of toughness that you can’t just conjure in the moment; that has to be instilled long before you ever take the field on game day. And there’s no question that Coach Smart has done a great job of instilling that in his teams, both mentally and physically.”

Stinchcomb said Georgia fans can expect to see that same level of toughness in all of Smart’s future teams in Athens.

“Part of it is a standard that’s been established by this current regime under Kirby but is now upheld in the locker room, and that’s gold!” he said. “If you can get your locker room to uphold a standard, adopt your standards and then uphold them and enforce those on themselves, that’s magic…a magical formula! And I don’t see that changing. 

“These Georgia teams, for two years in a row now, they have not finessed their way to the championship,” Stinchcomb said. “And they sure don’t finesse their way to game day. It’s a very much roll-up-your-sleeves and put in the work type approach and it’s paid big dividends!”

Smart talked about the Bulldogs’ toughness in both his press conference after the 65-7 dismantling of TCU in the championship game and the next morning’s presser while being accompanied by cornerback Chris Smith and tight end Brock Bowers.

“The significance (of going 15-0) is there’s no blemish,” Smart said. “I had four national championships at Alabama, I don’t think we had but one that was undefeated, and that one was really special.

“Sometimes it takes a loss to galvanize, put your team in a spot to win. It did that last year. And it didn’t take that (this season). I always tell guys, do you have to take a loss to learn? Why? Like, it doesn’t take that to learn that.

“And this team is special because they didn’t have a flaw,” he said. “They had two games in which they came back in the fourth quarter, Missouri and Ohio State, with incredible comebacks and led by Stetson and the offense.

“So, it makes it more special, I think, when you come back and look at it, because when you want to compare teams you’ll say, ‘hey, look at this team.’ There’s some parts of me that think, if the team last year played this year’s team, last year’s team probably had more talent on it. But this year’s team was different. Like, they just had this eye of the tiger; they weren’t going to lose!”

Smart said he had great admiration for the uncanny consistency of the 2022 champions.

“I keep thinking that if you press the gas pedal too hard, you’re going to run out of gas and they’ll be exhausted,” he said. “I kept thinking mentally maybe the LSU game. And then doing this, and doing that and then practicing this, and going to the Ohio State emotional, just roller coaster. Maybe we’re just out of gas. And they never run out of gas. So that goes a lot of credit to our strength and conditioning program, our training staff, our kids committing to actually doing that. Like, they actually go out and hit each other in the 15th week of the season over and over again, and they enjoy doing it.”

Smart pointed to senior tailback Kenny McIntosh and redshirt freshman quarterback Gunner Stockton as just two examples of the Bulldogs’ toughness this past season.

“Kenny, I can’t believe he would even be considered a three-star,” declared Smart. “That’s just disgusting to even think about because this guy is an incredible athlete. His brother plays in the NFL. He’s got great DNA. Kenny is a great example of our program. He came in as a chubby kid with a great smile, playing behind people and didn’t know how to play on special teams. He left as an alpha leader.

“And when he spoke, people really listened to Kenny. I’ve never seen a person will a team to a win like he did in Missouri. The guy was basically running crippled out there against Missouri and pounding people and running the ball. He took over games. I can remember the Florida game, after the fumble, I’ll never forget the visualization I have of he fumbles and we say, you know what, we’ve got to come back to Kenny. He comes back with a vengeance running the ball just mad. And those memories stay with me forever.”

In commenting on Georgia’s returning quarterbacks for next season, Smart lauded the example set by Stockton.

“We’ve got some good quarterbacks in there,” he said. “We got one that took a black jersey off and took hits all week so he could be Max (TCU QB Duggan). Gunner Stockton said, ‘Coach, take my shirt off. I’ll take the hits.’ And Brock Vandagriff is down there learning all year. Carson Beck got a lot of play time and has a lot of composure to come back and be able to play. So those three guys will get to battle it out. And they’ll learn a lot.”

Often times, the toughest, and most unheralded, players on a football team are the guys that toil up front in the offensive line. Georgia’s 2022 offensive front, which inexplicably was again overlooked for the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best OL (the Michigan line whose team lost to the same TCU team that Georgia routed won the award again) paved the way for Todd Monken’s offense to put up some impressive numbers this season: No. 5 in the nation and second in the SEC in total offense, the Dawgs’ 501 yards per game bettering the 2021 offense’s production; No. 4 in the country in scoring offense with a 41.1 per game average, which was also above last year’s per game average.

And at the National Championship Celebration on Sept. 14 at Sanford Stadium, one of the three team captains, redshirt-sophmore center Sedrick Van Pran, spoke of his unit’s accomplishments.

“Starting off I just want to look at all these guys (fellow offensive linemen) over here,” said Van Pran. “Y’all did a tremendous job this year and this wouldn’t have been possible without all the work y’all did. It means so much to me be a part of that and be the only offensive line ever to give up nine sacks in 15 games. It was truly a blessing. I’m super proud. We couldn’t do it without Coach Stacy Searels, Eddie Gordon and Devonte Danzey. We really appreciate all the work that everybody put in. We were able to do something special.”

And, certainly, SEC and National championships aren’t attained without plenty of toughness on the other side of the ball as well. Again, final statistics tell a true story for the Bulldogs’ defense also. Playing in somewhat of a huge shadow of maybe the program’s best-ever defense in 2021, these Georgia defenders were pretty special themselves. They ranked 10th in the country in total defense, and first in the SEC, with the 296.8 yards per game surrendered. They were 5th in the nation, and again first in the SEC, in scoring defense, the 14.3 pts average the Bulldogs allowed just being right at four points more than the 2021 unit gave up. And, get this, the 2022 defense of co-coordinators Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann, paced the entire country in rushing yards allowed, with opposing offenses running for a meager 77.1 average. Again, that was slightly better than the 78.9 yards average the powerful ’21 UGA defense surrendered.

Toughness personified. That was the Georgia Bulldogs, 2022 edition.





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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.