ATHENS — This is what a Georgia football player said last year, when asked if there was a culture change taking place since Kirby Smart became the coach.
“No. I don’t see any difference. .. The culture’s still the same.”
And this is what a Georgia player said after the team’s 41-0 win at Tennessee:
“It definitely feels different. It’s different because of the culture change.”
Those two comments, so seemingly diametrically different, were by the same player: Sony Michel. They just came one year apart, and with Georgia off to its best start in five years.
Georgia (5-0) has risen to No. 5 in the nation, its highest ranking since the end of the 2012 season, and has beaten its two SEC opponents by a combined score of 72-3.
So the term “culture change” is being thrown around a lot. Smart used the term on Monday. Michel, even after being a skeptic in the spring of 2016, had done a 180 by last weekend. When fans throw the term around, they’re looking at results under a second-year coach. But when the team does, what does it actually mean?
At its core, practice habits seem to be the main emphasis. Making practices harder than the games, to put it in the most simple terms.
“The harder you practice the easier the game is,” junior receiver Terry Godwin said. “I would say the culture change to us is just buying into what Coach Smart brought in. I feel like the majority of this team has done it. And it goes to show on game day. You see what it’s producing.”
Godwin, who was a freshman in Georgia’s final season under Mark Richt, was asked if the culture was broken before Smart arrived.
“I wouldn’t say it needed to change or anything like that,” he said. “I would just say you’ve got a new staff coming in, a new head coach, so you want to buy into what he’s bringing into the organization. That’s kind of what we did.”
Georgia did have plenty of success under Richt, even in the final few years: The Bulldogs were 10-3 and 9-3 in his final two seasons. But he was let go in large part because the administration thought the program had plateaued. They cast a blissful eye at Alabama, where Nick Saban had installed a very professional, discipline-oriented structure, with Smart as defensive coordinator.
Smart was asked Monday if he knew enough about how things were at Georgia to think if something major needed to change.
“I wasn’t concerned with the way it was before, I was only concerned with how I saw it being,” Smart said. “I thought that was important. It’s nothing about before, because I wasn’t here. It was more about the way I felt good practices should be done.”
The changes began in his first year, trying to make practices more difficult, and also having players do extra lifting during the season. The results, however, weren’t there; Georgia went 8-5 and didn’t beat anybody by more than 14 points. Back then, some players did talk about “culture change,” but it didn’t resonate when they were losing at home to Vanderbilt and barely beating Nicholls State.
This year, the results are there. Georgia has won four games by 21 points or more. When it comes to that culture-change question, players and Smart say it may have to do with taking a year for it all to set in.
“Last year, it wasn’t what guys expected. It wasn’t what guys were used to,” Michel said after beating the Vols on Saturday. “A lot of decisions Coach Smart was making — as a player, if something is hard, your natural instinct is to be defiant and not want to do it. But once you buy in and it works, it’s fun.”
Smart indicated that it may have been harder to implement harder practices last year because of the roster. The team wasn’t fully at the NCAA scholarship limit of 85, as it is this year, and the overall depth is better. Many highly-rated members of the 2017 recruiting class, for instance, can’t crack the two-deep. Five-star tackle Isaiah Wilson appears headed for a redshirt.
“From a depth standpoint, you have to have good numbers to be able to practice things that you want to practice,” Smart said. “We had to work to get toward that and we’re still striving to get what we need from a scout-team standpoint, a rep standpoint, a physicality standpoint. We’re trying to improve that everyday.”
There’s still plenty of time left in this season, obviously, seven more regular-season games for all this happy talk to be a distant memory.
But the way the first five games have gone certainly would indicate that something tangible has happened.
“I think we’ve grown up a little bit as a team,” Smart said. “I think they’ve seen the evidence in the practice habits they have. We didn’t know it would get the results we wanted from our practice habits last year. They’ve bought in to the fact that if they’re physical on Tuesday and Wednesday, they’ll be physical on Saturday. That’s carrying over.
“I think we’re just a year older. I think that practice habit and culture change has been good for them.”