CHUCK DUNLAP: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the SEC Championship game week. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and looking forward to the championship game in Atlanta next week.
We will begin today with SEC East champion Georgia and Coach Smart. I believe Coach Smart is with us. Coach, can you hear me?
KIRBY SMART: Yes, I can.
CHUCK DUNLAP: Good afternoon, Coach. Thanks for being with us. Congratulations on a third straight trip to Atlanta. If you could give us comments as you head to Atlanta to face LSU for the SEC Championship.
KIRBY SMART: We’re excited for the opportunity. I feel like our kids have earned the right to play in this game. Certainly excited for a third straight year to be playing in it.
I have a lot of respect for this venue and this event. I think it’s one of the best sporting events there is. The atmosphere that’s created in Atlanta is just incredible, and I know our kids have really cherished the memories from those games in the past two years, and also looking forward to this year, which — with the team we have to play, and LSU’s got a very strong team. That’s the way it should be in the SEC, and it always has been.
Q. Taking a look right now, what are the main challenges you see in slowing them down?
KIRBY SMART: Where do you want me to start? I’ve only got 30 minutes. So it’s all over. I mean, the running back is the best — I mean, he’s one of the most powerful, explosive. I mean, he does an unbelievable job. He was really good against us last year, but he has been a really good player.
It all starts with the quarterback. Their offensive line protects really well, and they’ve got probably the best group of wideouts, size, speed-wise, that you could ever imagine. When you start with the offense, you can start with any location you want.
Q. Was there anything from yesterday’s game that you got a chance to watch, or have you ever really gotten to that? If so, do you feel like defensively you’ve seen some more complete sides of them than you might have seen in the past couple of weeks?
KIRBY SMART: We’ve had overlap tape with the Auburn and Florida games. They’ve got a very complete team. They obviously had some guys injured and banged up on defense, but they’ve got a tremendous defense. They’ve got great athletes. We saw that last year when we played them. So it’s not like there’s a lot of weaknesses when you start talking about the caliber of program and the caliber of team that Ed’s put together.
Q. With the passing year that Joe Burrow has had and everything, I know you’re going to bring pressure and everything at certain points on him, but how careful do you have to be of his running ability, bringing that ball out of the pocket? I know he hurt you last year with a long touchdown run. Is that something you have to really be cautious of when you apply the pressure of this guy’s running ability?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s got balance, body control, pocket awareness. Probably when you wrap all those things together, it makes the combination of probably one of the best quarterbacks that I’ve seen, because I’ve seen guys that can run, tons of them. Very few that keep their eyes downfield like he does.
He’s calm in the pocket. He extends plays. When you think you’ve got everything done right, he breaks tackles. I mean, they have a free run of the quarterback. He breaks a tackle and throws a completion.
He doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses when it comes to what — the decisions he makes and the weapons he has around him.
Q. Kirby, I was just wondering if you could — you might have done this already. Wondering if you could update the health a little bit. In particular, if there’s any update on D’Andre Swift.
KIRBY SMART: No, not a lot of update from yesterday post-game. Everybody’s kind of the same status they were yesterday.
Q. Coach, Murray just touched on it a little bit with Burrow, but with the initial — now that you’ve been able to get into the tape a little bit, just what stands out to you about him?
KIRBY SMART: Joe Burrows?
KIRBY SMART: A little bit of everything. Joe is an incredible athlete. He’s got extreme toughness. You’ve seen him take shot after shot and stand in the pocket and make throws. He’s everything you want in a quarterback.
And you talk about athleticism, decision-making, awareness. He doesn’t make many mistakes. Even — there’s times he’s taken sacks, but they’re good decisions. He doesn’t make bad decisions with the ball. He very rarely turns the ball over, and he’s got just a stable of resources around him to distribute the ball to.
Q. Obviously, Joe Brady is getting a lot of credit for his development this season, now coming over from the Saints. Did you know much about Brady before he joined their program?
KIRBY SMART: No, I did not. I did not know much about him. I’d been to the Saints and visited with the Saints before from a defensive perspective, but I didn’t know much about Joe.
He’s done a tremendous job, as well as Coach Ensminger has, who’s a really good quarterbacks coach and has been around him for a long time, and they make a really good tandem.
Q. Hey, Kirby, I know you said D’Andre was fine yesterday, but a couple of years ago, obviously, Kerryon Johnson had a shoulder injury coming into this game, and as you guys quickly were able to pounce on him, he was not the same guy in Atlanta as he had been a couple of weeks ago earlier in Auburn. What was kind of the challenge there on managing that and how — is it one of those things that the shoulder is 80 percent? How do you kind of gauge that along the way?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I don’t think it’s the same scenario. I think I expect D’Andre to be fine.
Q. Okay. And then what obstacle is — when you look at LSU and what they’re doing offensively and what you guys have been able to do defensively, how much of — do you get excited over watching — I think they’re No. 2 in the country, and you guys are No. 2 in the country in scoring defense, they’re No. 2 in scoring offense, does a matchup like this excite you?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I think an opportunity in the SEC Championship excites you. I mean, it really doesn’t matter to me where we’re ranked defensively, offensively, special teams. That part, I know that everybody will make a big deal about those two things, and they’ve got a tremendous offensive explosions this year and tremendous offensive unit, a lot of respect for them, but that doesn’t make the game any bigger. It’s as big as it can be anyway.
Q. Coach, Devonte Wyatt didn’t dress. Will he play this week? Did Tyler Simmons, did he get the brace off his shoulder?
KIRBY SMART: Tyler’s fine. Tyler’s been playing throughout the year. So he’s been fine. He’s been — for a while now been without the brace. Devonte should be back, yes. He’s expected to be back.
Q. Kirby, what will the loss of Pickens in the first half Saturday do to your receiver rotation?
KIRBY SMART: We had the same thing this week, so it was not a lot different.
Q. So a lot has been made about Joe Burrow and his development. From the tape last year that you saw Joe Burrow to this year, does he even look like the same quarterback from last year to this year to you, Coach?
KIRBY SMART: I mean, he has the same athleticism. He had the same arm strengths, a lot of the same talents. I think the biggest difference is the offensive system and what they’re allowing him to do with full progression reads and pre-release, five out. They’ve got a lot of different things than what they had just last year.
I mean, he’s certainly playing better. I think the people around him are playing better. They’ve been much more explosive. He’s got more confidence. But they’re doing a lot more things offensively as well.
Q. On the defensive side of the football, if you could speak to the linebacker corps, specifically Patrick Queen, and the development you’ve seen along that linebacker corps this season at LSU, Coach.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, they’ve always had tremendous defensive players. I think with the loss of a kid last year, I mean, unbelievable player, they’ve had a lot of guys step up. When you watch what they’ve done this year, they’ve gotten better and better with each game. I think Dave Aranda obviously does a tremendous job, always has.
Their team has played better and better throughout the year defensively.
Q. Kirby, you mentioned Burrow and the play makers on offense, but why are they so effective in what they’re doing — you mentioned full progression reads and five out. Is that pretty much the extent, or what specifically?
KIRBY SMART: A lot of talent, good coaching, good offensive line, and a run game. They do really good things tempo-wise. They’re simple in what they do, and they get a lot of carryover week to week with different presentations of the same thing with really good players doing it.
Q. Wanted to ask you also, Demetris Robertson, how is he in his development this year as the season obviously enters SEC Championship weekend, especially now when you’re down a couple of receivers at the start of this game, at least?
KIRBY SMART: Doing well. He’s doing well.
Q. Coach, just a little follow-up on Pickens. Obviously, you had to deal with that situation this week as well, but a big step up in competition. Just how big of a blow is that to your team going into this game missing him for a full half?
KIRBY SMART: I’m not really concerned with it. It’s not a lot that you can control. So, I mean, you put the players out there that can play for us, and it’s “next man up” mentality. That’s kind of the way we’ve been at receiver all year. A guy’s been out, it seems like, at some time throughout the entire year. That will continue into this game.
Q. Another LSU offensive question. I was just wondering with Burrow, the skill set and explosiveness on offense, how much do they remind you of Oklahoma from a couple years ago?
KIRBY SMART: Not very much. I mean, very different. Obviously, both are very explosive teams, but really two different style of offenses.
Q. Is there another offense that you could equate this to that you’ve run across? You’ve obviously been a coordinator for a long time.
KIRBY SMART: No, not that I can remember. It’s very unique, very different. And I think the players in it — we’ve played a lot of teams that have strengths and weaknesses, and you try to exploit those, but when you look across the board at this group, there’s not a lot there weakness-wise. I mean, they really play physical, and people don’t give them credit for that. They play really physical, and their back, their offensive line, their receivers are extremely physical, but they have a really great ability to throw the ball quickly and get it out and throw the ball vertically down the field.
Q. Just to follow up on that, do you have to change what you do defensively? I don’t think your defense has given up a play longer than 30 yards since the South Carolina game. Do you have to modify your defense for this team?
KIRBY SMART: We’re still in the stages of looking at these guys. It’s hard to say that right now. I’ve been three, four hours into it today, and it’s not even Monday yet, so I don’t know that. If I did know it, I probably wouldn’t say it anyway.
Q. Coach, I was wondering if you had a chance to see the Texas-LSU game tape, and your thoughts on what they were able to do to the Aggies, Coach?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, extremely talented, explosive, fast, vertical passing up and down the field. Really well-coached unit.
Q. Is this as good a wide receiver unit — I know a lot of focus on Burrow, but No. 1 and No. 2 seem awfully explosive, Coach.
KIRBY SMART: Yep, I agree.
Q. Kirby, your program was one of recent to push through the SEC Championship game, you know, the ones outside of Alabama recently, LSU stepping in with this chance. Having experienced that from your end to fire and push through, what do you expect from their program what they’re experiencing behind their doors and leading up to this that you might prepare your team for?
KIRBY SMART: I’m sorry. I missed part of that. I didn’t catch the end of that. What are you asking again?
Q. I mean, like new team in the SEC Championship game, long time for them. What do you think they’re experiencing having kind of been one of those teams that’s pushed through recently?
KIRBY SMART: What do I think they’re experiencing?
Q. Yeah, like what might — do you feel like there’s more that they might be pushing into this game from that?
KIRBY SMART: No. I mean, I think you’d have to ask Ed that because I don’t really know. I know they’ll be well prepared. I know they’re extremely talented. They’ve played in a lot of big games this year. You think about it, they’ve played so many big-time matchups that — obviously, the SEC Championship is another one of those, but it’s the next step for both of us.
Q. Hey, Coach, in terms of your own roster and the fact that a lot of these guys are coming to this game for the second and third time, does it kind of give you all an advantage to have those guys that are experienced in terms of preparationally?
KIRBY SMART: I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s the next game. So regardless of where it’s played or who you’re playing or what you’re playing for — I mean, those guys have played in big games. They’ve played in big-time Bowl games.
In the SEC, it’s that way every week. We play a conference schedule that you’re going to play teams in the top 25 three or four times. So we’ve all been faced with that.
Q. Kirby, Jake Camarda had a really good punting game again yesterday. I think he kicked Tech three times to get inside the 20, and then Tyson Campbell downed one ball inside the one yard line, or one or two. But how important is that going to be to make the Tigers drive the long field Saturday to try to keep them with a good kicking game again?
KIRBY SMART: Certainly, a valuable force in some big games, and field position is always important in big games, and he’s done a great job of that. Got to continue that going on.
Q. You mentioned that you’ve seen the LSU defense kind of improve throughout the season. I guess is there any area that jumps out to you specifically that you’ve seen them really improve in?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, the linebacking corps to me is the one that sticks out the most. They played better and better, really aggressive. They’ve created pass rush with their linebackers, and they’re cover guys. Their linebackers are really good cover guys as well.
I mean, they’ve always had a great secondary. They’ve got one of the most experienced and talented secondaries in the country. So their linebackers have really stepped up and played really well also.
Q. In your own experience, do you think some of that is actually having some time together after shuffling, losing Devin White and whatnot? Do you think that might have a benefit there?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I don’t really know. I’m not sure of that.
Q. Coach, specifically, LSU, obviously, they go four wides, five wides a lot. They’re trying to get you man to man. Based on what I’ve seen, but I’d much rather hear your opinion on it, your secondary, and particularly your corners, have been pretty good in man to man. Can you talk a little bit about that matchup? How do you feel specifically about Eric Stokes, DJ Daniel, Tyson Campbell matching up with those LSU receivers one-on-one and being able to cover them? Can they cover them?
KIRBY SMART: That’s a question I think you find out around the game time. We’re certainly going to prepare as hard as we can and do the best job we can to prepare for a very talented offense. You can’t line up in one thing against these guys and expect to be successful, but at the same time, you can’t have confusion and chaos. They feast on that.
Q. You mentioned LSU has always had a secondary, this particular one. In what ways does it become difficult when there’s depth for secondaries that can play per personnel and there’s depth there and different guys have different roles? Have you seen opponents like that this season like this? What problems does that make?
KIRBY SMART: As far as their depth in the secondary?
KIRBY SMART: Well, the deeper you are in the secondary, the more guys you can play. They certainly don’t have to go very far past the top because they’ve got some really, really talented players in the secondary.
So the depth gives them the ability to do multiple packages and things like that on third down. They play the best guys. I mean, the depth probably only helps with injuries.
Q. I was hoping you could comment on getting back to the SEC Championship game in three consecutive years, and really what this says about the program you’re building there in Athens, Coach.
KIRBY SMART: Well, it says our staff and our administration and everybody involved in the program has done a tremendous job supporting these players, but the players have just — I mean, they’ve been so resilient because each year, and probably this year with the loss coming the earliest, they’ve been through some adversity, and their backs have been against the wall, and they’ve pushed and bounced back and had some hard fought wins.
Obviously, now they’ll get a chance to get an opportunity that not every team in the country gets, and that’s to play on what I consider to be the largest stage in college football and play on a stage where you get to play against one of the best teams in college football.
Q. We all assume out here that the turning point was that double-overtime South Carolina game for this team. You tell me, was that the turning point for this team, Coach?
KIRBY SMART: I think there’s been several. I mean, there’s been a lot of turning points. That certainly probably cranked the heat up and the pressure up to perform, but there’s been a lot of good work and improvement throughout the year and some hard-fought battles that I thought helped some young players turn the corner outside of the South Carolina game.
Q. Hey, Coach, you’ve gone up against Ed Orgeron at least once since you’ve been at Georgia. Just what have you thought of the job he’s done there since he took over that program and having to go through a tough division of the league?
KIRBY SMART: He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s created confidence and a toughness in their program. Their kids play really hard, really physical, and they play with no fear, and they do a tremendous job of being aggressive.
You know, you look at the big games he’s coached in and played in, his teams have been successful. I think Ed is one of those people that’s smart enough to put a lot of good coaches around him and let them work, and he does a great job of managing that.
I think his players really play hard for him and buy into their organization. You see that on tape. Any coach that does that, I’ve got a lot of respect for.
Q. I mean, every coach comes in and has their goals that they want to have in terms of how they want the program to be. How much harder is that, in that it’s easier said than done to get that accomplished?
KIRBY SMART: Well, it’s tough. I think that’s the goal of every coach when they take over a program is to impart their footprint and their wisdom into it and create a culture of whether it’s winning or just competitive toughness. That’s what you’re always trying to do when you build a program, and he’s certainly done a good job of that.
Q. When you start talking about those close wins as hard-fought wins, how valuable are those to you at this point in the season? And especially when you’re going into a game where you very much expect, if you’re going to win it, it’s going to be a four-quarter battle?
KIRBY SMART: I’m sorry. You went out there.
Q. I was asking about you talked about those hard-fought wins and how valuable can those experiences be in a game where you expect it to be a four-quarter battle if you’re going to come out on top. How much can it help you, all those tight wins you guys had this year?
KIRBY SMART: It can be a tremendous help. Obviously, their team has been through a lot of tough battles too. When you come out of the SEC and you represent your programs in this game, you’ve been through the gauntlet.
Whether you’re undefeated, you’ve got one loss, or you may have two losses, you’ve been through some tough, hard-fought battles, and I think that gives this such a classic matchup and why you’ve seen a lot of really good games in this because both teams come into this game battle tested.
CHUCK DUNLAP: Coach, I think that’s going to wrap you up. Thank you for your time, and we look forward to seeing you on Friday.
KIRBY SMART: Thank you. Appreciate it.