SEC Championship pregame press conference on Friday, December 6, 2019 with UGA football head coach Kirby Smart.
Kirby Smart’s opening remarks:
“Excited to be here again. Certainly had a great week of practice. Our players are excited for the opportunity to play in what we always say is one of the greatest sporting events in all of college football. I think the history and tradition of the SEC speaks for itself. I know being a south Georgia boy growing up, it was probably the biggest game you looked forward to seeing every year because the champion of this conference has carried itself well for many years, especially in the public eye.”
“Our players have earned the right to be here. We’re excited. I’ve got a lot of respect for the LSU team we’re about to play. Coach Orgeron and his staff have done a tremendous job, number one, recruiting, but also developing the players they have into a system that really fits what they do. So got a lot of respect for him. Looking forward to an awesome game and an awesome atmosphere.”
You’ve got some freshmen playing defense and some wide receivers as well. Given this is the 13th game of the season, how much do you see growth from them? How different is a freshman at the end of the year in a game like this than from where things started?
“They’ve got a lot more confidence from the first game, but you do always say, okay, this game’s a pretty big game. How does that impact those guys? Each year we’ve been here, we’ve had freshmen that have gotten better throughout the year and, I think, have developed throughout the year.”
“I think back to last year defensively, I know we had guys play major roles toward the end of the season, and that’s kind of been the same way this year defensively with several guys having an impact throughout the year. Offensively, same way with the young group of wide receivers and the skill guys that have been able to help us. I think that’s big.”
“But when you play in the SEC and you play these week in and week out tough, hard-fought games, these guys have gotten accustomed to these kinds of battles throughout the year.”
Kirby, I know Chase and Jefferson down the field, two great receivers. A lot of times Joe Burrow likes to dump it off to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. So what kind of pressure is that going to put on your defensive backs and linebackers to defend that well with the ability to throw the little short pass and make big gainers out of the backfield?
“They’ve got a lot of guys they can throw it to. The three you mentioned are tremendous, and they’re really good at getting those three guys the ball, but they have so many weapons. If you just so happen to cover them all, Joe Burrow is one heck of an athlete, and he can hurt you with his feet. So it’s a great opportunity.”
“I mean, when you watch tape on them, you have nothing but respect for what they’ve been able to do because I know the caliber of the defenses they’re doing it against. Those are good defenses that’s they’re out there putting up 40, 50, 60 points. They’ve done a tremendous job.”
I remember you spoke after the Florida game about spending some time with Jake, just kind of checking in on him. One, have you kind of continued that throughout the year? And, two, how has Jake Fromm grown and progressed in your eyes through the season?
“Not to the level, I haven’t been able to continue. I see him every day at practice. We obviously share time together, but we haven’t gone to lunch or do anything like that. With the schedule we have, it’s a little tough to keep. It’s more of my free time comes on off weeks.”
“Jake is a tremendous leader. He always has been. He shoulders blame and gives credit. I think it’s what strong leaders do. He’s a tremendous person, and he’s done a great job with our offense and making sure they’re in the right football play.”
“I don’t think everybody understands the pressure that he carries and the burden he carries to do a lot of that each game. He does a lot of film work and a lot of film study to do that, and I’m really proud of the way he’s been able to handle everything this year.”
When I’ve heard you speak of Coach Orgeron, you speak very highly of him. It seems that coaches generally have a high respect for one another. Can you speak to the job he’s done after what happened at (indiscernible). I know a lot of people counted him out after that.
“You can say this, in the coaching profession, everyone has respect for Coach O. Number one, he’s a great person. He’s fun to be around. He’s an elite recruiter. I remember as a young coach the first time I ever heard of Coach O, you would hear stories, and they were just crazy stories. I mean, you heard all these things, and he’s got such a charisma about him and a character about him that you enjoy being around him.”
“I have the great fortune at every SEC meeting of having F on my left, Florida, and L on my right, Louisiana, so I get to sit between those two guys. It’s definitely a big contrast. I enjoy getting to visit with Coach O.”
Joe Burrow, when he was coming out of high school, did you know much about him? I know when he was a graduate transfer, you weren’t really in the market for him. Was there any interaction with him during those times?
“No, I can’t say that — we didn’t really recruit him out of high school. I actually think, when he was coming out of high school, I may have been in Alabama. That was during the year he was getting recruited to go to Ohio State. Then, no, we did not recruit him as a grad transfer or wasn’t aware of him coming out.”
“Pretty amazing the talent he has and how much he has developed. It goes to show you that a lot of these quarterbacks, they get better and better and better, and when the perfect quarterback meets the perfect system with some really good skill players around it, that’s what you combine to get.”
I’m just curious, how important is it to have a guy like J.R. Reed, a vocal leader in the back end, to correctly align guys to make sure they’re in the right situation, especially against an offense like LSU, who you’re going to face tomorrow?
“Yeah, he’s critical. You always say the point guards are the leaders of the basketball team, things like that, quarterbacks on offense. Those safeties on defense are the guys that have to be your signal-callers. They’ve got to get the signal, and they’ve got to take that signal and apply it to the formation, and then they’ve got to apply the rules for the week, and then they’ve got to put people in the right place and make signals back to the people in front of them. So there’s a direct line of communication going on.”
“J.R. and Richard have been able to handle those things. We put a lot of pressure on them because we want to give kids the tools to be successful. When you play a really good team like this, you can’t line up in the same thing over and over. They certainly do a great job of exposing weaknesses.”
Every year you guys play Florida in these neutral site games, and that gives you a chance to play in these big stadiums. How much of an advantage do you think that gives you in this situation especially since LSU hasn’t played a neutral site game this year?
“Last I checked, LSU plays in big stadiums. They play in Tiger stadium. They get to go play in Jordan-Hare Stadium. They play in Tuscaloosa. They play in some incredible venues. I get your point about the neutral site, but would you rather play in a neutral site game, or would you rather play in a road game in the SEC?”
“I think neutral site games kind of even things out. It’s not the same level of crowd noise that you have. I always thought in Jacksonville neither team had to deal with real crowd noise because it’s not all of one or all of the other. That, to me, is tougher. It’s tougher for us to play at home defensively because we communicate a lot and it’s really loud. When we go on the road, it’s tougher on offense.”
“When you go to a neutral site, yeah, it can get loud, but it’s not to the point that it affects the game as much in my opinion.”
How much weight do your guys put in having experience in this game and this atmosphere and even a playoff game?
“I don’t know that you put weight in it. I just think, when you play in the SEC, the games you play in — LSU plays Texas. The atmosphere for that game, LSU goes through the gauntlet of their season. We go through the gauntlet of our season. In the SEC, these games are essentially championship games every week because, if you don’t win them, you’re not in the championship. So they’re very competitive. It’s really like another week that you’ve got to go out and perform and play because you’re playing the best from the other side.”
“So I don’t get that there’s a competitive advantage for either team having played in this kind of game or this venue.”
Kirby, I’ll be the guy to ask. What has D’Andre progress been like this week? Do you feel like he’ll be 100 percent? Or if not, how close to 100 percent do you think he’ll be playing at?
“It’s hard to tell in practice. At this point of the season, you don’t go out and tackle and hit and do all those things. We practice against each other, and he’s practiced. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. I’m excited to see him go play, and we’ll have the expectation that he’ll play well.”
With that said, Coach, I know throughout the season you’ve touched on this, Brian Herrian, just how pleased you’ve been with how he’s progressed throughout the season, and he’s a difference-maker.
“Yeah, he’s an incredible story of a kid that went from not even signing anywhere on Signing Day to coming to Georgia, and if I could count the number of carries he’s gotten that weren’t in a game, because he carried the ball so long when Nick and Tony were there and he took so much pride in getting every carry. He was patient last year behind Holyfield and Swift, and he’s earned his right. He runs with a level of passion that I respect. He’s been a really good leader for our team.”
Coach, we talk a lot about LSU’s offense and the way they pass the ball, but how do you guys particularly plan on stopping the run game, especially with Clyde Edwards-Helaire?
“Clyde Edwards-Helaire is one of the best backs I’ve seen in this conference. He’s got a presence about him, an ability to run pass routes, to break tackles. He does a tremendous job. They use him really well. He complements what they do because he is a pass receiver and he’s a tremendous runner. So it will be a challenge. I have great respect for them, and they’ve broke about every record there is in the SEC offensively. It will be a challenge for us. I know our defense is excited about that opportunity.”
Last year you guys went against LSU. How much different is this team here, and what can you say about their turnaround?
“Yeah, extremely different. You can see remnants, some hollow elements, but the unique thing now is they’re really just doing anything they want to do. They don’t have to do anything. They do anything they want to do, and whatever they want to do, they’ve been really successful at in all the games. Outside of maybe the Auburn game, they did whatever they wanted to do whereas last year they were probably a little bit more predictable, and they wanted to be a little more run-oriented. They’ve gotten to where now they can do what they want to do offensively and then they’re successful doing that.”
The other day Dabo Swinney made a comparison to his team’s playoff resume compared to how the media and the selection committee treats your team’s playoff resume. How much do you think an SEC team deserves the benefit of the doubt in a playoff conversation on the basis of the perceived depth of the league?
“I think that’s a great question. It’s a great question for media and for talking heads, but it’s not a great question for me because we have to go out on the field and play and perform. That’s really where I try to focus, so I try not to let any of that outside noise to affect how we prepare.”
You said you’re excited to be here again. How routine does that get? What’s it like to do it back to back to back? How much does it raise the bar for you guys in terms of what you hope to get out of this for the end of the season?
“Well, I’m excited to be here because I love the venue, I love the opportunity to go play in it. It also means you did something, you accomplished something, you won your division. I don’t think you’ll ever take that for granted.”
“I think, if you ask any SEC coach that’s had the opportunity to come here, whether it’s two years in a row, three years in a row, or whatever it was, it’s earned. You earned that. Our kids have done that. It’s not something we take lightly or take for granted. It’s something that we expect to do, and we’re going to always set that as a bar because, for us, this is where you go to go take the next step, and that’s important for us.”
Now that you’re at this point in the season looking back, how much did that loss to South Carolina and adopting a playoff mentality after that, how much did that help you guys get to this point in the season, and does it help you tomorrow at all?
“I don’t know. I think we learned a lot about ourselves from that game. You say you play with your backs against the wall. Your back’s against the wall every week because of this league and really, this format of college football, it only takes one sometimes. You lose control of the things around you if you don’t perform well, and you start hoping and wishing on other people.”
“So it probably was better for an awakening internally for some guys and for team members than it was the overall our backs are against the wall because you’re in playoff mode every week in the SEC.”
Kirby, what influenced you in your early days as an assistant coach at LSU that you still carry on today?
“Man, those are some early, early days. It was my first full-time coaching job in the SEC, and I was really young. Coming into Nick’s staff was an awakening in itself. It was an exciting — it was a year of growth for me. I still relish the memories and the people. Every time we played LSU, you see people that are still part of the program and have a lot of respect for the LSU administration and the people that were there when I worked there. It’s a tremendous place. They love their football.”
Is it pretty remarkable what Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger have been able to do with just pretty much a fall camp and everything to be able to have the offense progress like it has? Not only now but even from the beginning of the season.
“Yeah, it is — look, it’s not a complicated system that they do. What it is, it is some tremendous chess pieces that are doing it. When you add together a quarterback, a back, an offensive line that has five returning starters and an unbelievable group of wide receivers, you can do a lot of things and be successful.”
“What they’re doing is putting a package together that matches exactly what you need, an athletic quarterback that can move around the pocket, that can make plays, extend plays, scrambles for first downs left and right. But then on top of that, you’ve got a guy that can make good decisions where he’s getting five outs every play and using the weapons he has.”
“They don’t sit there and beat people with scheme now. They don’t go out there and say, okay, we’re going to scheme this. They run very similar plays from different formations, but they’re highly, highly efficient at doing this.”
Following up on that, it seems like they adjust well over four quarters. How difficult is it to confuse them and keep them from adjusting?
“Yeah, they’ve done well in the first quarters too. They score a lot of points throughout the game. I do think they find good matchups, find adjustments, find things they can do. But you don’t have to adjust a lot when you’re scoring at the rate they’re scoring. They’re high octane, very efficient, very effective. When you go through a breakdown and you’re looking for more third downs and you can’t find them, that’s usually a sign somebody is pretty good because they’re not getting a third-down very often.”
We hear a lot about LSU’s offense all the time, but what kind of challenges do you see their defense poses for the offense, just from a perspective of LSU’s defense?
“They have an incredible group of guys who have played better and better and better. You can tell they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder. The last two or three weeks, they have pass rushed with a different dynamic. They’re using their athletic guys to rush the passer. They’ve got a tremendous secondary that we got to watch them — I got to see them more on tape, as we played Auburn and we played Florida. You could see the talent that LSU has in the secondary because they’re able to put their hands on people and cover what we knew are two really good teams.”
“Got a lot of respect for Dave Aranda and their staff, and they’ve got their guys playing really well now.”
Kirby, so much made of the LSU star power. Your defense, is it oversimplifying to say it’s a no-name defense, or are there some rising stars and guys that you would point to as keys for Georgia’s season?
“Yeah, people have kind of said that about them. I don’t think there’s — there’s not that dominant personality or dominant player, but there’s a lot of good football players that buy into it. We play a lot of guys. So it’s easy to kind of label it a no-name type defense, but I just — I think they play so well together, they play so hard, they buy into the game plan, and they’re unselfish. There’s a lot of guys that have been unselfish.”
“There are some talented young players on it that I think are going to be really good, but for the most part, it’s led by older players.”
Coach, you just talked about LSU’s offense and how they get off to a quick start in the first quarter. For your team, how imperative is it going to be for you to match that intensity and match what they’ll throw at you right off the bat?
“It’s always important. You want to get off to a good start. That’s a big key for every game. You don’t want to lose momentum early. You want to be able to maintain that and start out aggressive and handle it well. Every coach wants to start that way. A lot of it is how prepared are your kids? How well can you adjust in games? How well can you handle adversity? Because both teams will face adversity in this game, and a lot of that is how you respond to it.”