There s no question that with 10 starters returning on defense, two of the top running backs in America — Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — back for their senior season, a second-year quarterback in Jacob Eason plus an offensive line that showed marked improvement in the recent spring drills, the Georgia Bulldogs should have everything they need to capture the 2017 SEC East Division championship.
But having outstanding players who have the skill sets and talent to play winning football is one thing, the primary question mark for Georgia this coming season is, will these Bulldogs have the right mindset, the will to succeed and, most importantly, the ability to carry the sustained focus their head coach harped so much on in the spring over into the approaching summer workouts and then into August camp and the new season itself?
Sure, en route to that 8-5 finish Kirby Smart’s first Georgia team compiled in 2016, there were certain games where the Bulldogs were out-manned a bit and simply outplayed but, also, there were bitter defeats that evolved from the players just not having the proper mental acumen, not being focused on making the correct plays when the games went on the line in the closing minutes.
The losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech — all at home — fit right into that category.
That’s why Smart, from the very start of this year’s spring practice, made sure the words “sustaining focus” would be embedded in the Bulldogs’ minds from that point until the afternoon of Sept. 2 when Georgia kicks off the new campaign against visiting Appalachian State.
“I’ve talked to the players extensively about sustainable focus because that seems to be, with a young team… especially with the group we had last year, a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing, their ability to focus for long periods of time — a one-hour meeting, two-hour practice, that’s been a point of emphasis for us,” Smart said, prior to the first spring drill. “Usually the first day that’s not a problem. But as spring goes along, a lot of guys can get complacent. You worry about guys saying ‘Okay, well I had my job last year so I’ll have my job again this year.’ That’s not the way it’s going to be for us. We’re going to challenge them to compete every day. The players that block, tackle, do the things fundamentally well, will be the guys who will be able to play.”
And as the Bulldogs toiled through the 15 days of practice, including the April 22 G-Day game, they indeed seemed to buy into their head coach’s message, building on mental and physical preparation they can sustain through the summer conditioning and on into the 2017 season.
“Guys are fighting off every distraction there is, especially in Athens in springtime and towards the tail-end of classes,” said rising senior tight end Jeb Blazevich in the week prior to G-Day. “I think that’s the hard thing – they’re learning new plays, learning a new offense with classes finishing up but I think the guys have buckled down and even in practice have sustained that focus, just maintaining that level of discipline throughout practice. I’m proud of the guys,” said Blazevich. “I know we’re not where we need to be yet, of course, but I think it’s still trending upwards. No doubt, Kirby addresses everything you need to hear. He’s always talking and shoots straight with us … you can be physical, you can do this. He has a true assessment of what we did and how we can continue the next day, even in meetings and following up in practice. Yeah, he stays consistent on all that and continues to challenge us in different ways.”
Blazevich’s compatriot at tight end, rising sophomore Isaac Nauta, said there’s no question the Bulldogs are honed in on the degree of focus they need to become a championship team this coming autumn.
“Winning that bowl game (over TCU in Liberty Bowl), that was big for us — to come out on top, to finish the season with a good taste in our mouth,” said Nauta. “That was kinda the thing that we wanted to roll over into this spring and next season. Just how we want to work and how we want to play, and just keep that focus on how it needs to be done. We know what we did wrong, we know what we did right… minimize some of those mistakes we made, that’s really what I think he means by just staying focused on what the main goal is at the end of the year.
“I think there has definitely been a huge change in as far as guys being at spots, guys being late; everybody has just had a better mentality of ‘this is the way it needs to be done in order to be successful,”’ Nauta added. “So, I’ve been very pleased with just some of my buddies on the team, teammates, friends — everybody’s been more willing to do what they’ve got to do to help this team.”
Senior left tackle Isaiah Wynn said he noticed marked improvement in this area from Georgia’s offensive line from the first day of spring practice all the way through the culmination of G-Day.
“The O-line, we’ve really been able to focus more on the playbook now,” said Wynn. “I think Coach (Sam) Pittman and Coach (Jim) Chaney and the offensive staff, they’ve really been doing a good job of just making us focused, keeping us focused throughout the meetings and just the entire spring season. And I think it’s had a cause-and-effect. One position group sees another position group excel and it challenges the next group to get on the same page.”
Senior tailback Nick Chubb says sustained focus is nothing more than taking care of your business each and every day in practice.
“It’s just really eyeing in on what our assignment is, just know what we have and kinda not letting distractions bother us,” Chubb said. “Whatever’s outside of football, just come in here and whatever we’re focusing on, just really locking in on it.”
And rising junior inside linebacker Natrez Patrick believes the Georgia defense has also done remarkably well in heeding to Smart’s sustaining focus sermon.
“I definitely saw better focus throughout the practices,” Patrick said. “There weren’t as many busts by the defense. We didn’t have as many penalties so that improved focus is being applied and the defense has become more disciplined.”
Smart, who lauded the Bulldogs for their tunnel focus from the very first scrimmage of the spring on, said after G-Day what’s now of the utmost performance is how the team takes its focus forward into the summer workouts and August camp.
“The key for preseason camp is how we manage our Phase 3, which is Maymester final exams and workouts this summer,” Smart said. “That’s the next step for us. Can we get bigger, stronger, faster? Can we outwork the teams we’re going to play from now until fall camp because there’s so much you can do without coaches out there? So go out there and do it and get better! We’re challenging those guys to go out there and take the leadership role, (quarterbacks) Jacob (Eason) and Jake (Fromm), and let’s keep getting better and let’s keep moving forward. I do think we’ve gotten better this spring. And we had more people out there this spring; we had more sheer numbers. We had 17 offensive linemen and there are a lot of schools that would die to have 17 offensive linemen in their spring practice because you have three units. That makes the core of your team better and that’s what excites me.”
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