ATHENS – It was hot the day Georgia began football practice, but that was August and it was expected. Then it didn’t stop. Record-high temperatures lasted week after week, the sun beating down especially hard in the afternoon, during practice.
In years past, that could have derailed this team. Ask people around the program about last season, about trying to instill Kirby Smart’s plan to make practices harder than games, about having to practice outdoors every day. They’ll tell you it left some players exhausted by mid-week.
Not anymore. The underrated hero in the Bulldogs’ unbeaten start and national ascension may be that big gray building that opened this year. The $30.2 million indoor practice facility that allowed the team to escape the heat and, players and coaches said, have more productive practices this season.
“Coach Smart, he looks at analytics and science a lot,” senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “We get on a schedule where we’re outside some days, and inside some days, because it helps the body recover. Having that indoor definitely helps.
“Last year we were outside all the time, you couldn’t practice as fast … just being sluggish. We go indoor now, and we get our legs back. And it just helps practice just be a lot faster, and keeps a lot of guys fresh.”
Georgia, infamously, was the last SEC program to get an indoor facility. For years, detractors pointed to only a few practices a year that were lost because of rain. When that happened, the team tended to drive an hour away to the Atlanta Falcons’ facility in Flower Branch.
But the heat was the reason that programs like Alabama, where Smart was defensive coordinator for nine years, went into their indoor building once every three or four practices, whether it was raining or not.
“Because when you’re in the AC, running around, you’re faster,” Georgia junior tight end Jackson Harris said. “Helping you conserve your legs more for game day.”
The analytics that Bellamy referred to are the GPS units and chips that are on every Georgia player during practice, gauging their movements and energy level. (Those pre-date Smart’s arrival by a year or two.) As the coaches and strength staff analyzed them last year, they could see that the heat would take its toll.
It also didn’t help that the team was busing 10 minutes to and from each practice, to the outdoor fields the athletic department used while the indoor facility was being built. One team staff member pointed out that was about two hours lost every week, and opined that it might have cost the team two wins last year.
But the buses are gone now, and the AC is blasting in the new facility. The team went indoors roughly once every three or four days in the preseason, and have gone about once each week during the regular season, though sometimes more. There are also days that Smart has had “half-in, half-out” practices, the defense beginning outside while the offense is inside, and then switching midway through practices.
“It’s hard to measure, but in my mind, I think it’s made a tremendous difference,” Smart said. “Maybe it’s just mentally, I don’t know. I just know that trip over on that bus and dealing with the openness of the place.
“I don’t know if it was hotter this year or last year. They both seem extremely hot. The difference for us is the ability to recover and go inside. … We’ve done more things inside than we ever have, and I think that’s helped.”