On the Beat with Mike Griffith: 5 takeaways from Georgia’s win over Middle Tennessee
ATHENS — Georgia football has an explosive offense and a deep defense, but Kirby Smart is the first to say there’s more work to be done.
The Bulldogs are aiming for an SEC title and national championship, and such lofty goals provide little margin for error.
Blowing out overmatched opponents like Austin Peay, South Carolina and Middle Tennessee looks good to start the season.
But it doesn’t necessarily translate to winning a championship.
That’s why Smart has said over and over the team needs to improve each week to get to where it wants to be.
No doubt, Smart was upset after Saturday’s 49-7 win by what he called “silly, stupid penalties” and “sloppy organization” on defensive substations.
Georgia has yet to face an opponent that can make it pay for potential game-changing plays, such as Jake Fromm’s uncharacteristic freeze-up in the end zone that led to a fumble.
If Fromm holds the ball in the end zone and fumbles at his goal line at LSU, it’s the sort of momentum play that could get Death Valley shaking and sound the upset alarm.
Georgia subs heavily on defense, a front seven by committee that changes with each opponent and down and distance situation. If the wrong group is out there at the wrong time, it could lead to the wrong matchup that a more talented opponent could exploit.
“A lot of those things are hard to overcome,” Smart said, “especially when the talent level gets closer together.”
The talent level is about to get closer with the Bulldogs entering into a heavier portion of the schedule.
Here are 5 takeaways from the Bulldogs’ win over Middle Tennessee
Starter D’Andre Swift didn’t touch the ball after the first two offensive series, finishing with four carries for 12 yards — not exactly bell cow numbers. Smart indicated he just wanted to give other backs work, but it begs the question if Swift needs rest for an undisclosed ailment.
The Georgia running back room has experienced a drop-off since losing the No. 2 and No. 3 all-time leading rushers, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
This season’s stable of backs has yet to show it can fill those sizable shoes.
Elijah Holyfield came on in relief of Swift against Middle Tennessee and got the bulk of the work, breaking off a 66-yard run en route to 100 yards on eight carries.
Holyfield is a hard worker and popular with coaches, teammates and fans. But he isn’t as apt to break those tackles against a better defense, and he lacks the elite speed to get the corners like Swift.
Brian Herrien appears hot and cold, seemingly never able to find rhythm. It appears Herrien is ready to change that.
Taking the leash off and I plan on losing it🤫
— Brian Herrien (@brianherrienn) September 16, 2018
Explosive freshman James Cook has been getting more snaps and experience in the fourth quarter of the past two games, running into defenses that know Georgia is simply trying to run out the clock.
Smart has been somewhat conservative in his praise for the Georgia secondary, which makes sense because he is often directly involved in coaching it with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and the bar is set extremely high.
The said, Deandre Baker looks as good as any cornerback in the nation, and safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte have played premium football, particularly good in run support and on open-field tackles.
Smart has said more than once he’s not sure how much the secondary has been tested, but after next Saturday at Missouri against QB Drew Lock, the Bulldogs’ head coach and everyone else will have a better idea about this group.
Some Georgia fans get livid at the suggestion there’s a controversy, and rightly so, because there is no controversy. Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will decide who starts and when and if another quarterback will come in and play in each game.
But for anyone to suggest this isn’t a situation worth monitoring is naive, particularly as true freshman Justin Fields continues to look more comfortable and advanced in each outing.
Jake Fromm is the leader of the team and the offense, but Smart is doing his due diligence by getting Fields snaps and experience. It’s a long season, and Georgia needs to be just as prepared at quarterback as anywhere else in the event of an injury.
Further, Smart has pointed out, there’s competition at every position, and that includes quarterback.
Special special teams
Smart took some heat in fall camp when incoming freshman running back Zamir White suffered a knee injury covering a punt in practice.
But Smart, a proven championship coach who few are questioning at this stage of his career, pointed out that playing top players is part of the plan at Alabama as well as Georgia. For that matter, Tennessee has been doing the same thing for years, even when it meant the Vols lost their top defensive player in 2016 in punt coverage (Jalen Reeves-Maybin).
It’s a trend that isn’t slowing down as coaches look to squeeze the most out of their talent and enable players to compete for playing time and places on the travel squad via special teams units.
Georgia’s special teams are elite and could potentially lead to a repeat SEC Championship. In addition to Mecole Hardman’s ability in the punt return game, kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is 3-for-3 on field goals and has put every kickoff (23) into the end zone. Freshman punter Jake Camarda is averaging 47.44 yards each attempt.
Smart and his team probably smiled when seeing the noon kick at Missouri, as it provides the potential for another hot, sunny day (the current extended forecast for Columbia calls for a high of 80 next Saturday).
Georgia is arguably the most conditioned team in the nation as a result of Smart’s insistence on afternoon practices in fall camp, and the level of player talent that has been recruited into the program.
The competition level within the Bulldogs’ team is so intense that players push themselves, often coming in on their days off and investing countless hours into film work.
Georgia’s near-miss in the national title game has served to drive the time to work even harder, something Smart and his players take pride in.
“We worked hard for this, if you could see the work we put in before the games, this is what we deserve,” Mecole Hardman said. “This is what we work for day in and day out.”