ATHENS — Georgia football players know things are never good enough for coach Kirby Smart, who once said his motto is, “if it ain’t broke, find a way to make it better.”
Smart, providing some halftime commentary on the Bulldogs’ “Virtual G-Day” game replay from the 23-17 win over Notre Dame, found some positive things to say about his defense when UGA legend Eric Zeier asked him about that unit’s focus last season.
After all, Georgia finished No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense and rushing defense, No. 3 in total defense and No. 8 in pass efficiency defense.
“First thing I’d attribute it to is some really good players,” Smart said. “Second is a good plan, our coaching staff, Dan (Lanning), Shoe (Glenn Schumann), Tray (Scott) and Charlton (Warren) have got a great relationship.
“They really do a good job of teaching the players the plan each week, and it’s different week to week.”
Smart, however, is always quick to make sure his players don’t get too complacent.
Remember, it was Smart who called his defense “atrocious” after a 21-0 shutout over Kentucky last season in which the Wildcats didn’t complete a pass until there was less than 5 minutes left in the game.
If there’s one player Smart is harder on than any other player, it’s preseason All-American candidate and starting safety Richard LeCounte.
Smart, of course, coaches up the safeties and LeCounte is a player who many know to be one of the head coach’s favorites.
In Smart’s world, that just means he’s harder and more critical of a player than any other, and he went out of his way to point out how LeCounte failed to execute near the end of the first half on a Notre Dame drive.
“They did a good job, they hit us on a seam route, a four vertical route that they hit Richard LeCounte on,” Smart said, referring to a 28-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet that sparked a drive leading to the field goal that put Notre Dame up 10-7 at the half.
“We were in three-deep zone and they had a good call for it,” Smart said. “Richard had that tight end, he kinda stared at the quarterback, and they hit him for a big play and they got a little momentum going with the hurry-up, started moving the ball there and had some success with that.”
LeCounte has explained in interviews that part of the reason he chose Georgia was to be coached hard by Smart, understanding that it will only make him better.
Smart has offered LeCounte praise, as well, but it’s clear he wants him to be a leader.
“Yeah, Richard is much wiser, he’s much more coachable,” Smart, himself an All-SEC safety during his playing career with the Bulldogs, said last fall.
“He understands that he’s in pursuit of excellence, not perfection, and there’s a difference. I think that as he grows, he can help younger players in that room realize that you’re not going to be perfect, but we are in pursuit of excellence.”
Smart, it’s worth noting, was asked on a teleconference with beat writers earlier this spring about players who have had a good offseason.
It may or may not have been by design, but all five of the players Smart named were on offense — none on defense.
This, on a defensive unit that returns nine of 11 starters from a Sugar Bowl unit that shutout Baylor in the first half of a 26-14 Sugar Bowl win.
After the Sugar Bowl win, Smart’s post-game comments were more directed at his team needing to stay humble than anything celebrating the win.
“When you’re not hungry, you become average, and some of that, I think, has affected us in the past,” Smart said. “And we’ve got to find a way in this program to not let that creep in and keep that same hunger you have as a young player because we’ve had it happen to several guys that were really hungry, and then they become full.
“And you can’t become full when you go playing the teams we play against.”