ATHENS — “Change is inevitable but growth is optional.”
That appears to be the phrase du jour for Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs this year. And it’s a good fit.
The Bulldogs opened spring drills Tuesday with their first of 15 practices, which will culminate with G-Day on April 21 at Sanford Stadium. The day began as it usually does, with a pre-spring news conference at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
This is Smart’s third spring as Georgia’s football coach, and this one is decidedly different than those first two. It seems like only yesterday that Smart was trying to get to know his players and get to know himself as a first-time head coach, while also trying to rally the fan base. The next year he was trying to convince everybody he knew what he was doing. He did quite well on that front, I think we can all agree.
And now, Smart finds himself in the midst of a rebuild, or a reload, however one prefers to characterize it. There remains a buzz, an electricity, over the magical run last season to the SEC title and National Championship Game. But then there’s the reality that 31 seniors and two juniors have moved on since that heartbreaking game ended in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Hence, Smart’s latest expression.
“I think that’s a great mantra for this team,” he said.
If we’ve learned nothing else about Smart during his brief tenure as Georgia’s coach, it’s that he’s big on sayings. Whether it’s “Do Your Job,” from Bill Belichick, or “Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing” or “Attack the Day,” Smart clearly believes in establishing a theme each year.
This season, or this spring at least, it’s “change is inevitable but growth is optional.” The phrase comes from noted pastor, author and motivational speaker John C. Maxwell. The Michigan native conducts seminars all over the world and has written several best-selling books on leadership, most notably The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.
Obviously, Smart was doing heady reading during his spring-break vacation with his family last week in St. Lucia. But Maxwell’s message is quite simple. In this world, more than ever, change is constant and unavoidable. The key is adapting to it and recognizing wherein one can grow from it.
You can see why Smart went with that one, for there is indeed a lot of change happening within the Butts-Mehre Football Complex.
To start with, the defense has been turned upside down. The Bulldogs are looking to replace seven starters from the 2017 group, including the entire linebacking corps, each of whom was an all-star at his position. The Bulldogs lost much less from the offense — three starters officially, four if one includes Sony Michel — but the voids are significant. Michel and Nick Chubb took more than 8,000 yards and 80 touchdowns with them, Javon Wims was the team’s most clutch receiver, and Isaiah Wynn started 41 games, the last 15 at left tackle.
“Everybody wants to talk about the guys that left, and I’m certainly excited about those guys getting their last chance to showcase [Wednesday] at our pro day,” Smart said. “But, you know, you don’t replace a Roquan Smith. You don’t replace a Nick Chubb, a Sony Michel, you don’t replace any of those guys, because there’s not going to be another Roquan Smith. There is not going to be a guy exactly like him. So each one of our players has to create an identity for themselves. This team has to create a new identity for itself.”
More notable, however, was all the leadership therein. Smart and the Bulldogs have recruited their butts off, so it would follow that there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. But as Smart pointed out, talent was no more an issue in 2016 than it was in 2017. The Bulldogs entered both seasons with largely the same roster. The difference, Smart said, was the leadership and buy-in of the 2017 team. And that still has to be mined out of this latest group.
“The challenge of finding the personalities on this team that will lead the right way, the personalities on this team that will challenge the other guys,” Smart said. “A lot of that already started in the offseason program, guys challenging each other, pushing each other. We’re not going to get where we want to go if we don’t have great leadership. I can promise you that.”
The change goes beyond the players on the field. There also has been extensive change within the coaching staff. Jim Chaney is now sharing his offensive coordinator title with James Coley, who was coaching wide receivers but is now coaching quarterbacks. Chaney takes over tight ends, Cortez Hankton comes in from Vanderbilt to coach wideouts, Scott Fountain comes in as the new 10th assistant and will concentrate solely on special teams, and Dan Lanning comes in from Memphis to coach outside linebackers.
Some of the change came as a result of other teams recognizing good work at Georgia, and some was initiated by Smart in an attempt to improve. Regardless, there were a lot of new faces and voices Tuesday at Woodruff Practice Fields, and that’s an adjustment for all involved.
“Yeah, [there is some] level of risk,” Smart said of the staff shake-up. “But I think if you continue to do the same things you’ve always done you’ll get the same results usually, guaranteed. We’re always trying to get better. I’m not accepting and saying we were good enough by any means. I think you can always look at yourself and say how can I improve? I think we improved our staff tremendously.”
Smart is definitely familiar with this whole process. For years, he was one of the only constants at Alabama, where Nick Saban was having to replace assistants annually the way the rest of us change light bulbs. That part is inevitable. If Georgia keeps winning at the rate it did last season, it can expect to keep losing coaches to other programs.
But, as always, it will come down to players more than coaches. And as Georgia demonstrated last year, that often comes down to leadership as much as talent.
Smart says he doesn’t know yet where the 2018 Bulldogs stand in that regard. But he’s eager to find out.
“The biggest question about this team is who are going to be the leaders?” Smart said. “Who are going to be the guys that demand a lot of each other? It’s not talent alone. You don’t win the SEC, you don’t play in the Rose Bowl with talent alone. You’ve got to have great leadership, and that’s where we’ve got to really improve.”
Or grow, as the saying goes.