What the most important moments of Kirby Smart’s coaching career tell us about the future of Georgia football
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The most important moments of Kirby Smart coaching career so far
As hard as it might be to believe, this the fifth offseason in which Kirby Smart is leading the Georgia football program. It seems like only yesterday he came over from Alabama after Georgia parted ways with Mark Richt.
In his short time in charge, he has accomplished a lot. He’s won three SEC East titles. He’s 10-3 against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. He’s won a College Football Playoff game. The only thing he hasn’t yet done is the one thing he was explicitly brought to Georgia to do: win a national championship.
Still, the program has gotten incredibly close to summiting that final mountain. A lot of Smart’s decisions have gotten Georgia to this point, both good and bad. Below, we examine those decisions, how they’ve shaped Georgia and what they tell us about the future of the Georgia football program.
The moment: Landing Jake Fromm in the 2017 recruiting class
What it means/meant: Georgia had signed a 5-star quarterback in Jacob Eason in Smart’s first recruiting cycle. But before even seeing Eason play in a game, Smart landed another elite quarterback prospect in Fromm. This let us know that Smart was going to be relentless on the recruiting trail, which explains how Georgia has landed a top-3 recruiting class in each of the past four cycles.
Fromm was committed to Alabama when Smart was the defensive coordinator. It’s pretty clear now that Smart wanted Fromm to lead and be the face of his program. He did that for the past three seasons, as he beat out players in Eason and Fields who were more physically gifted than Fromm. As the starting quarterback, he did so much for the Georgia program, putting it in place to compete for a national title.
With Fromm now gone, it will be interesting to see what route Smart chooses to go at the quarterback position. Smart was very aggressive in targeting Jamie Newman in the graduate transfer market, and he projects as a much better runner/athlete than Fromm.
The moment: Sony Michel and Nick Chubb announce they’re returning for their senior years
What it means/meant: These two helped established Georgia as a dominant rushing team in 2017, which was the closest the Bulldogs have gotten to winning a national championship. More so than that though, no two players likely meant more to the culture Georgia has established under Smart.
Both Michel and Chubb could’ve gone to the NFL after the Bulldogs went 8-5 in 2016. But they bought into Smart’s vision and helped lead the Bulldogs to an SEC title the next season. The two also went on to become top 35 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, further establishing Georgia’s RBU pipeline to the NFL.
It is interesting to note though that in the last two offseasons, Georgia has seen a number of offensive players leave early for the NFL draft. The Bulldogs had four offensive players leave early for the 2019 NFL Draft and five more — including Fromm, Andrew Thomas and D’Andre Swift — do so for the 2020 NFL Draft. Those early defections no doubt hurt Georgia’s title chances in 2019. But Georgia did see four defensive starters, most notably Richard LeCounte, return for the 2020 season.
Perhaps they can have an impact similar to Chubb and Michel.
The moment: Second and 26
What it means/meant: Georgia had a double-digit lead in the second half of the national championship game. It had a lead in overtime. A Davin Bellamy sack backed up the Alabama offense, whose kicker had shanked a game-winning attempt at the end of regulation, was backed up to the 41-yard line with a freshman quarterback.
We don’t need a full play-by-play of what happened next. Alabama won the game and the championship. It’s the closest Smart has come to toppling his former boss in Nick Saban, but it’s also served as another painful reminder of why Smart came to Georgia and how he still hasn’t accomplished that goal yet.
The moment: Running a fake punt with Justin Fields in the SEC championship
What it means/meant: In the moment, it was another painful defeat to Saban and Alabama. It also happened to be the final play of Justin Fields’ Georgia career. He ended up transferring to Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to a berth in the College Football Playoff and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Georgia offense this past season struggled for pretty much all of November before completely flopping against LSU.
This play call showed that Smart is perhaps a more aggressive coach on the field than he had been given credit it for. But this play call and the subsequent result really reinforced that he was still only in his third season as a head coach. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and even Dabo Swinney weren’t faced with the same pressures in their third seasons as a head coach. But none of those three coaches had a team with as much talent as Smart did.
Since this game, we have seen Georgia become more aggressive in some aspects, specifically with how the Georgia defense was deployed in 2019 under new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. But we all saw an offense that was still far too conservative this past year. Smart had a chance to change his offense but instead went with a more familiar and comfortable name in James Coley. A more experienced coach might have made a different move, which is what we saw Smart do the next season.
The moment: Replacing Coley with Todd Monken
Hindsight is 20/20 and the promotion of James Coley to offensive coordinator was defensible at the time. And Smart could’ve given Coley a second year as the play-caller — with a better group of receivers and a new quarterback — to see if things would turn around.
But like many of the other elements of the Georgia program, Smart appears to finally be getting aggressive on the offensive side of the ball. Monken is a stark departure from the types of offensive minds Smart has had in the past. And if Smart does let Monken deploy the offense we’ve seen him run, Georgia’s offense could look a lot more like the one that LSU just won a national title with, as opposed to whatever Georgia was running last season.
We’ve seen Smart is willing to be aggressive and forward-thinking in some elements of his program. But no one would say that about the Georgia offense in the first four seasons under Smart. Perhaps this is the final bridge Smart has to cross as a coach to accomplish what he came to Georgia to do.
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