Kirby Smart downplays coaching familiarity, says Vols ‘on the brink of something special’
ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his players are calling it a business trip, but there’s always a twist when going up against former friends and fellow assistant coaches.
That will certainly be the case for the Bulldogs at Tennessee this week. More than half the Vols’ coaching staff (six of 11) have spent time coaching in the Georgia football program.
“It’s a very unique feeling,” UGA center Trey Hill said on Monday. “Our coaching staff used to be over there, theirs used to be over here. It’ll be a pretty good battle.”
The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (4-0) travel to Knoxville this week to play Tennessee (1-3) at 7 p.m. on Saturday (TV: ESPN) in a rivalry game filled with coaching crossover.
Georgia has two assistants who spent time on previous Vols’ staffs: offensive line coach Sam Pittman (2012, Derek Dooley) and secondary coach Charlton Warren (2017, Butch Jones).
Tennessee has several, including head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Pruitt was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator the final two seasons of Mark Richt’s tenure (2014-2015). Pruitt pointed out last year his familiarity with other Georgia assistants because of the time they spent together at Alabama.
“When he (Smart) was the defensive coordinator, one of the things I did was I assisted him, I wasn’t an on the field coach yet, so we spent a lot of hours together,” Pruitt said of working with Smart at Alabama from 2007-12.
“You’ve got Glenn Schumann there, who was a grad assistant when we were there. Dan Lanning was at Alabama, and I was there for a little bit with him, so there’s lot of guys there.”
Lanning was promoted to replace Mel Tucker as Georgia defensive coordinator this offseason, with Schumann promoted to assistant defensive coordinator.
More recently, Chaney nearly doubled his salary by leaving Georgia in January for the Vols. Chaney said at the time it was an easy decision to take the Tennessee job and that there are advantages to having familiarity.
“I think it helps you a lot when you know people and people know me,” Chaney said. “I have folders on certain coordinators and coach Pruitt and Kirby.”
Georgia linebacker Tae Crowder said it won’t affect the gameplan.
“I’m sure Coach Cheney will probably try to mess with our defense a little, try to scheme a little,” Crowder said. “We’re just going to stick with what we know.”
Jake Fromm believes Crowder and the defense could benefit.
“It will be interesting, it should be really good for our defense,” Fromm said on Monday. “They know a lot about what he does in his system, but he also knows a lot about us and what we do here.”
Smart said on Monday too much was being made of any built-in advantages Chaney may have with his knowledge of the Bulldogs’ personnel and offensive and defensive tendencies.
“I think there’s a lot more to it in your guys’ stories than there is in real life,” Smart said, asked about facing Chaney, who served as his offensive coordinator the past three years.
“It’s going to boil down to which guy blocks properly, which guy covers properly. There’s no, like, secrets. I mean we know what they do, they know what we do. But that’s the case every week.”
In addition to Pruitt and Chaney, Vols’ assistants Will Friend (graduate assistant 2003-04; offensive line 2011-14) Tracy Rocker (defensive line 2014-16), Kevin Sherrer (linebackers 2014-17), and Brian Niedermeyer (graduate assistant 2015).
Tennessee is off to a 1-3 start in Pruitt’s second season, but the Vols’ head coach said last week the program is “100 times better” than it was at this juncture last season.
Smart was asked about Pruitt’s comment, and he expounded on the areas he sees improvement at Tennessee.
“Their depth, their physicality,” Smart said. “They were thinner at some positions last year. They’ve got more guys. They’re rolling and playing more guys. They’re playing really hard and they play really physical. You look at the games they’ve played this year, they’ve had some self-inflicted wounds. Otherwise, they’re winning or in those games.
“They’ve got a good staff, they’re going to push these kids, and they’re getting them better,” Smart said. “They’ve had a whole week to get better and improve, and I think it shows on tape when you watch them how hard they play, that they’re on the brink of something special.”
The Bulldogs are a three-touchdown favorite to take the lead in the all-time series between the programs, which stands at 23-23-2.