Approximately 1,200 former UGA lettermen were scheduled to attend Saturday’s G-Day game. Few of them are more equipped to evaluate the beginning of the Kirby Smart era than former Bulldog and current Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins — who is a four-time NFL Pro Bowler and among the ex-players on hand for Smart’s debut.
Count him as a fan of Smart.
Atkins told DawgNation, “I’ve met him and I like him. He seems like he’s going to take the program to a new level.”
Of course, Atkins’ feelings about Smart — admittedly — come with a bit of a bias. One of the things Atkins likes about Smart is the first year coach’s commitment to strengthening the Bulldogs’ defensive line.
Smart has talked repeatedly since becoming UGA coach about the importance of improving the depth along the lines of scrimmage — telling reporters at his introductory press conference in January, “I think as a whole we always have to build from the lines. It’s hard to play good SEC football without great offensive and defensive linemen.”
As one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen, that’s a philosophy Atkins can support. He said he got the impression UGA was going to be a “defensive-oriented team” under Smart and that it would “start with the trenches and work its way back to the secondary.”
UGA offered a glimpse of its new-look defense on Saturday, but fans can be forgiven if they didn’t notice a lot of changes yet — especially on the defensive line. Redshirt freshman defensive end Justin Young had five tackles, sophomore defensive tackle Trent Thompson had three tackles — including a tackle for loss, sophomore defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter had three tackles, and junior defensive tackle John Atkins also recorded a tackle. However, UGA has dealt with a number of injuries to that group — including sophomore defensive tackle Daquan Hawkins and sophomore defensive end Michael Barnett, who both injured MCLs and were limited throughout the spring.
The lack of depth along the defensive line caused by those injuries might have been a contributing factor in Smart admitting after the scrimmage, “I wasn’t pleased with the way the defense played today. They didn’t play with enough toughness or effort.” That’s an understandable opinion from Smart after G-Day — a game in which the Red and White teams combined for 48 total points and 725 yards.
Yet no matter how dissatisfied Smart may have been, Atkins is convinced this is a team heading in the right direction. He believes success for the Bulldogs can happen quickly under the new coach’s leadership, saying, “If everyone buys in, he’ll show them the way.”
More on G-Day from DawgNation:
- Photos: 93K fill Sanford Stadium for G-Day game
- Coaches are much more optimistic about the kicking game
- G-Day marked the first victory for Kirby Smart
- Jacob Eason impressively surpassed his hype
- The biggest highlight of the G-Day game wasn’t on the field
- Watch: Kirby Smart’s press conference after G-Day
- Black beats Red, but there were other winners on Saturday
- Eason was rousing in his debut
- A look back at G-Day’s biggest plays