Kirby Smart isn’t afraid to call out Georgia’s players: ‘Honesty is the best policy’

Brant Sanderlin/AJC

ATHENS – Dominick Sanders is one of Georgia’s top players, and one of its appointed leaders. None of that made him immune to the blunt tongue of his new head coach.

Kirby Smart said this summer his secondary – which ranked first in the nation last year in pass defense – had “some good players back but not great players, certainly not the level I would be accustomed to coming from Georgia.” He also said Sanders, a junior safety who made first-team All-SEC last year, was “a second-team All-SEC type player.”

What did Sanders think of that?

“I never really looked at it as a challenge, but I looked at it as that’s his opinion, so all I can do is keep giving my all and show him that I’m better than what he thought about that,” Sanders said this week. “But I never took it as he made a bad mistake with that statement. That’s what he thought.”

When Smart stood at the podium last Saturday night and railed against “undisciplined” players – he said it about five times – it might have surprised some people. But only people who haven’t been paying attention. Since taking over for the more tight-lipped Mark Richt, Smart has shown a willingness to publicly criticize his players, both individually and as a group.

For that, Smart is unapologetic.

“I think honesty is the best policy,” Smart said. “If you ask me how a player is doing, I think I’ll tell you how he’s doing and I’ll tell him the same. That’s kind of my policy on how they’re doing.  I don’t think it’s ever good to be openly critical of a college athlete.  I think it’s good to be honest, though, if they’re not performing to the standard that I think they should.

“But I’m always open and honest with our kids.  If any of them want to know why they’re not playing, they can come talk to me and we talk about it.  We have a good relationship.”

It’s not that Smart doesn’t compliment his players. He does. But the public call-outs of players are notable:

  •  He’s downplayed the success of last year’s secondary several times, opining that last year’s coaching staff “protected” it because of its pass rushers.
  • Regarding the kickers, Smart has tweaked them several times, starting with a quip that he was “scared to death” about the situation earlier this year, to after Saturday’s game saying that Rodrigo Blankenship’s 48-yard kickoff with 10 seconds left “is long for Rodrigo.”
  • In the preseason, he said freshman offensive lineman Ben Cleveland has to “play really hard (and) we don’t always get that out of him.” And he said freshman defensive lineman Julian Rochester has “got to play with more consistency and effort, because not every day does he give the effort he needs to give.”
  • Smart also called out receiver Terry Godwin in the preseason for not doing well with the fundamentals. Relatively speaking, it was fairly mild criticism.

Georgia senior cornerback Maurice Smith spent three years at Alabama, where Nick Saban wasn’t afraid to single out players for criticism.

“Oh yeah, he did that. And I believe that coach Smart is doing that because that’s probably the only way he knows,” Smith said, with a chuckle. “It’s not such a bad thing. I think he does it just to let people know that, Hey this guy is a lot better than this, or however he says it, I don’t think it’s personal, I think he’s doing it for the best for the player.”

UGA strong safety Dominick Sanders on Kirby Smart’s comments about him: “It’s nothing I really worry about That’s just his opinion, but deep down inside he knows I’m a hard worker, and I give it my all.” (Joshua L. Jones/Special)

“You know, I think it’s part of the culture change,” senior center Brandon Kublanow said. “It comes from us, too: Some leaders need to call some guys out too when we aren’t doing the things that we’re supposed to do. Something that hasn’t happened in the past.”

Kublanow wasn’t on the team in 2012 when then-senior safety Shawn William had his famous pre-Florida rant, which caused waves but lit a fire under the defense.

Then-head coach Mark Richt reacted to Williams’ rant by saying he preferred such things stay behind closed doors. And Richt would rarely publicly criticize his players.

“It’s a little new, but it’s something that needs to happen,” Kublanow said. “I think it happens at a lot of programs around us. It’s part of the discipline.”

Smart was asked if the criticism of players was meant to motivate them.

“I don’t know. I think I’d leave that for y’all to judge,” Smart said. “I mean, I don’t think as many kids look at the stuff as you think they do, but if they read that we’re challenging them physically, then we probably are challenging them physically to their face, so they already know that. They know it’s an honest opinion; it’s not a motivating tactic; it’s just honesty.

“I just think when you’re honest with players, they trust you more. I would rather just tell them exactly like I feel.”

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