ATHENS – Shortly after Kirby Smart was hired as Georgia’s coach, he was asked what he wanted the identity of his offense to be. He painted a broad picture.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball, we’ve got to have explosive passes, we’ve got to be able to throw the ball down the field,” Smart said, adding: “You’re going to say that’s broad, I’m going to say we don’t know until we find out more about our personnel. We don’t make our personnel fit Jim Chaney’s offense. We can’t do that.”
Nine games into Smart and Chaney’s time at Georgia, they do know about their personnel – but their identity still seems in question.
Georgia has won a couple games with a classic, physical rushing attack: North Carolina and South Carolina. But attempting to replicate that in other games has been hard, and in beating Kentucky on Saturday, Smart’s team did just the opposite: It spread out and went in the shot-gun. And it worked.
Georgia was in the shot-gun 40 times in last Saturday’s game, and those plays gained 276 yards. The other 33 plays netted 184 yards, though 51 of those came on one play: The 51-yard pass to Javon Wims, which was on play-action.
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Both of Georgia’s touchdowns came out of the shot-gun: A 38-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie out of a four-wide set, and a 26-yard Sony Michel run on an inside handoff. Michel had five runs of 8 yards or longer out of the shot-gun.
The game seemed to reinforce something that Eason, the freshman who ran a spread in high school, is more comfortable in the shot-gun. And it also reinforced that with an undersized and average offensive line, Georgia needs to be creative in its run plays.
So does that clash with the kind of offense Smart wants to run at Georgia? Not really, according to Smart, who actually disagreed with the notion that they’ve looked better this season going out of the shot-gun, and said they did run it well out of some two-back and two tight-end sets.
“We have a gameplan every game we go in, just like every team does, that you have three wide sets and you are able to run certain plays out of them,” Smart said. “We have those. If those work, then I’m great with it, especially if we’re not successful in the other. But we have to do what the strengths of our team are. And sometimes that’s two back, sometimes it’s not.”
Indeed, the strength of the opponent has to be considered: Kentucky ranks 11th in the SEC in total defense. So maybe it wasn’t the rather conservative gameplans that felled Georgia against Florida (second in the SEC in total defense) and Vanderbilt (eighth, but improving).
“A lot of that is based on not only who we are or what we run, but who we play,” Smart said Monday, when asked about the creativity of Georgia’s rushing attack. “The bottom line is the bigger and more physical they are out there, the harder they are to move. We have to be creative. We have to have the right runs into the right fronts. We have to be stubborn enough to be able to run those. But at the same time allow Jacob to use his strengths and use the wide outs.”
Georgia has run it 56.2 percent of the time this year. That’s less than it did last year (59.7 percent run) and two years ago (63.2) but more than it did in the pass-happy, record-setting year of 2014, when the Aaron Murray-quarterbacked offense only ran 51.2 percent.
Points-wise, Georgia is averaging just 23.7 points per game, which would be the program’s least ever since the schedule expanded to 12 games.
Georgia ranks 87th in total offense entering this week, averaging 382.7 yards per game. That’s on pace to barely (by about 70 yards) surpass last year’s total yardage, which was the program’s lowest in six seasons.
But the good news for Georgia is that at Kentucky it averaged 6.3 yards per play, the most since the season opener against North Carolina.
So does that mean the shot-gun and three- and four-wide sets will continue? For what it’s worth, Auburn is statistically much better stopping the run (fifth in the SEC) than the pass (11th). But Auburn’s pass defense numbers have been padded by opponents throwing more because they’re behind. Auburn’s opponents are only averaging 6.3 yards per pass attempt, tied for fourth in the SEC with LSU.
Wims was asked Monday whether he believed Georgia had found its identity yet.
“I believe we have an identity,” Wims said. “We established that we’re a physical team. We’re a straightforward, come-at-you team.”
Is it compatible with what worked at Kentucky?
“Absolutely,” Wims said. “When we run the team ball teams are going to tend to stack the box, and they’re going to bring all their guys in, and sometimes you have to keep them honest by throwing it.”