A year ago at this time, Kirby Smart was all about getting people excited.
He talked about a higher standard and increased accountability at Georgia. He stumped for a sellout of the spring game. He helicoptered onto high school football fields, dazzling recruits. He hired new coaches and overhauled the strength and conditioning program. He inflated the size of the support staff (non-coaches) to include a “football graphic design coordinator” and a “player relations coordinator,” positions most mortals couldn’t comprehend, but at least they sounded cool. And, besides, he came from Alabama.
The Bulldog-obsessed masses drank it up. “Paradise, just over the next hill,” they thought.
Alas, it was a tease. Georgia finished 8-5. They lost as many as they won in the SEC, lost at Ole Miss by 31, lost at home to Vanderbilt and wound up in the postseason’s wasteland of the Liberty Bowl.
Smart said Tuesday, “From the standpoint of our system, we’re in a much better place” this spring than the Dogs were when he started this venture. They need to be and in more than just schemes.
The honeymoon period for an SEC football coach might be the shortest in college or pro sports. Smart isn’t going to dazzle people anymore with anything short of wins in his second season. That doesn’t mean Georgia has to win an SEC championship next season to affirm he was the school’s right pick to replace Mark Richt but it does mean the Dogs need to show significant improvement to ease concerns. They need to make it clear they are moving forward, which was not apparent last season.
“In terms of quantifying (improvement) and all that, it’s really hard to judge (progress) until you go out on the field and have practices,” Smart said. “We’ll see where they are compared to where they were against TCU (in the Liberty Bowl).”
He spoke as the Dogs opened spring practice Tuesday. He didn’t spend any time building up the spring game this time. He talked about having competition for jobs — every job, including “wink-wink” quarterback — and imploring players to have “sustainable focus,” which often seemed absent last season.
There are two reasons to believe this spring will be more productive than last: 1) Players won’t have to bus to nearby fields for practice as construction on their own facility (indoor and out) is now complete; 2) It’s Year Two for everybody, including Smart, who was the highest profile freshman of them all.
That might seem harsh but think about it: Quarterback Jacob Eason has athletic gifts but he figured to suffer through some painful lessons in his first season as an SEC starter. The same should have been expected for Smart. He had never been a head coach before on any level, let alone in the SEC. At least Eason had started before, albeit in high school.
There’s no reason to believe Smart won’t be better this season in terms of game management and preparing his players to play. There’s no reason to believe the team won’t be better, especially with the decisions by so many key players to return, including tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Dominick Sanders and outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy.
But even if Georgia sweeps non-conference games against Appalachian State, Notre Dame (road) and Samford and starts 3-0, as it did a year ago, what will happen when the SEC schedule begins? Next season will be about the growth for many, but for Smart and Eason in particular.
Smart said Eason is in “better shape” than he was last spring. “As the year went on, he got more comfortable and mobile in the pocket and I saw that in the offseason conditioning program. I thought, ‘This guy’s a better athlete than he’s being given credit for.’ But from a leadership standpoint, he’s got to do a better job of communicating in the huddle, doing all the things a freshman will struggle to do, trying to get by for himself. He’s got to help others now.”
Eason’s struggles stemmed in part from weak offensive line play and uneven play-calling by Jim Chaney, who eventually had a late-season meeting with Chubb and Michel to clear the air on some issues. But he also lacked the leadership needed for the position, something Smart hasn’t hesitated to bring up.
This actually is a perfect situation for Smart: He has a talented returning starter at quarterback but, at least publicly, he is saying that incoming freshman Jake Fromm will compete for the job. The roof would have to cave in on Eason to warrant a change but putting that message out there for him and other returning starters creates the competitive tension Smart likely wants.
And so, we get comments like …
“Jake Fromm is a talented young man who’s going to come here and compete. That’s why he’s here mid-year. He has a really good understanding. He was really coached well in high school. He comes in ahead of your normal average freshman.”
That was sort of the mindset about Smart. Then came the reality of the season. Now it’s about waiting for the fall and watching the results in Year Two. Suddenly, stumping for 90,000-plus for the spring game doesn’t seem as big of a deal.