Kirby Smart on George Pickens: ‘It can’t just mean more because it’s Auburn’

Georgia football-George Pickens-Malaki Starks
Georgia wide receiver George Pickens will look to have a big performance against Auburn.

You could understand thinking that the Georgia-Auburn game is a bigger deal to George Pickens than some of the other games. Pickens is from Alabama, playing for Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala. He was committed to the Tigers for two years before flipping to Georgia on 2019 National Signing Day. 

Given that he’s an emotional player and the history between Pickens and Auburn, it’s fair to wonder what his mindset might be heading into this rivalry game.

But Pickens’ head coach believes the sophomore wide receiver isn’t treating this Saturday’s match-up between No. 4 Georgia and No. 7 Auburn than he would any Georgia game.

“George [Pickens] is competitive by nature. He is a fiery-spirit guy. He has to play with composure,” Smart said. “We talk about that with all of our players, not just George. It’s got to be the same this week. It can’t just mean more because it’s Auburn—it has to mean more because it’s the next game.”

In 2019, Pickens had just a single catch for 11 yards against the Tigers. But after that November contest, Pickens really seemed to take a leap, as he scored touchdowns in the four games following the 21-14 win for Georgia.

He started the 2020 season with another touchdown catch as well, as he caught 4 passes for 47 yards in the 37-10 win for Georgia over Arkansas. With concerns about Georgia’s quarterback position, a big game from Pickens would go a long way in easing the burden of whoever is under center for Georgia on Saturday.

“George is always prepared the same,” safety Lewis Cine said. “He takes a business-like approach to the way he prepares. George is George.”

Quarterbacks: The Bulldogs played multiple quarterbacks last week and the expectation is for that to be the case once again on Saturday.

As of this writing, the thought is that Stetson Bennett will get the start for the Bulldogs on Saturday. Against the Razorbacks, Bennett came off the bench and threw for 211 yards on 29 pass attempts while throwing for 2 touchdowns.

Related: 3 things: Georgia QB Stetson Bennett favorite to start against Auburn

Beyond that, there’s also D’Wan Mathis and JT Daniels. Mathis got the start last week but was pulled in the second quarter for Bennett. Daniels, the high-profile transfer from USC, was also cleared to play this week.

Smart spoke this week about finding meaningful practice reps for the quarterbacks in order to prepare them for what should be a much tougher test against the Tigers.

“We’re going to get the guys prepared. It gives us the best chance to win,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of reps out there when you have ones, twos, and threes, and you’re able to get a lot of work. We’re going to get work, but we’re not going to have juggling if you don’t have enough reps to get guys in there with the ones and get reps.”

Running back: Georgia’s running backs didn’t light the world on fire against the Razorbacks, as the group ran for just 111 yards on 25 carries.

But all five scholarship running backs did register at least one carry in the game. Zamir White led the group with 13 carries for 71 yards, with James Cook earning the second-most carries with seven.

Smart, as Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee had previously stated,  loves the depth the Bulldogs had at running back, even if every game doesn’t see all five scholarship running backs register carries.

“I have a lot of confidence in all five of those guys. They do a good job and work each day. Not to say we are going to play five every game, but I have confidence in all five.”

One player who could be in line for more work is sophomore Kenny McIntosh. He was battling injuries during fall camp, which limited his reps. But he did find work as Georgia’s kick returner against Arkansas and he ripped off returns of 48 and 43 yards.

As he continues to get more healthy, those kind of explosive plays could provide a real boost to the Georgia rushing attack

Tight end: The Bulldogs were without graduate transfer Tre’ McKitty due to a knee injury. But the other new addition at the tight end spot still managed to make a few plays as Darnell Washington impressed in his Georgia debut

Offensive line: For all that’s been made about the struggles of the Georgia offensive line, there was one player working at a new position who seemed to have a quiet day, something that’s always a good thing for a new starter on the offensive lineman.

Related: Line dance: Georgia offense unsettled with rotations at center, guard and tackle

That would be Georgia’s new left tackle Jamaree Salyer.

“Jamaree has done a good job. I thought he helped lead the group,” Smart said. “He’s got a little more experience than those other guys. He is still relatively new to the position. He has worked really hard at it. He is going to be challenged more and more as the level of competition goes up.”

This was only Salyer’s second-career start, following his performance at right tackle in the Sugar Bowl. Salyer took over the left tackle spot from Andrew Thomas, who was taken with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Smart though cautioned about assuming Salyer will be a Thomas clone, as the Bulldogs will face stiffer tests in the weeks to come. But Salyer also has the ability to continue to improve in that time.

“He really plays hard. He’s really conscientious about it,” Smart said of Salyer. “He goes against really good pass rushers every day in practice. He is continuing to get better, and that is what we need to build around at the quarterback position is a lot of guys that are each individually getting better.”

Defensive line: It hasn’t always been the case on the defensive line — where it is notoriously difficult to earn playing time as a freshman — but a couple of Georgia’s freshman defensive linemen are making some headway as they adjust to the next level.

Jalen Carter and Warren Brinson both made the trip for Georgia to Arkansas, with Carter seeing early playing-time as a pass rusher in the game. He also registered a tackle for loss.

Smart has liked what he’s seen so far from the two 2020 signees along with fellow freshman Nazir Stackhouse.

Related: Georgia football freshmen report: UGA 37, Arkansas 10

“They’ve both done a good job. They’re a work in progress,” Smart said. “Like most freshmen, they’ve had some mistakes. They were able to go in and play and the kid who didn’t get to make the trip based on sheer numbers but is playing really well.”

Georgia doesn’t need the freshmen to play like the current models of Jordan Davis or Malik Herring. But given the Bulldogs lost five defensive linemen from the 2019, there are opportunities to fill some kind of role early on. And Travon Walker proved last season that you don’t need to start against to make an impact, as seen by his game-ending sack against Auburn.

Outside linebacker: Nolan Smith led the team in sacks with 1.5. Azeez OJulari forced a safety for Georgia’s first points of the day. It seemed like Jermaine Johnson was everywhere and a major problem for the Arkansas offense. Adam Anderson made his presence known with a few pressures of Feleipe Franks.

It was a strong first game from perhaps Georgia’s most talented position group, as they asserted themselves against Arkansas. Georgia will need to that same type of effort against a new-look Auburn offensive line.

Georgia, as it did against Arkansas, will need to find ways to get its talented outside linebackers on the field and in roles where they can be successful.

“They all have roles. They all have different strengths, and they feed off of each other,” Smart said. “We try to find more ways to use them in our defense and be creative about creating roles for them that cause problems for the offense. I am very pleased with those guys.”

Related: Kirby Smart on outside linebacker Nolan Smith: ‘He has never had a bad day’

From a pass-rushing standpoint, the Auburn offensive line held up well against Kentucky, as it kept quarterback Bo Nix from getting sacked. But replicating that performance against the Bulldogs will be a much bigger challenge.

 

Inside linebacker: Given the modern college football age, no one could blame inside linebacker Nate McBride for wanting to transfer. As good as a player as he is, the Bulldogs have also brought in big-time recruits such as Quay Walker and Nakobe Dean since McBride signed as a member of the 2017 recruiting class.

But McBride stuck it out, as he fills a number of key special team roles in addition to working as an inside linebacker for Georgia.

Hearing him talk about why he wanted to stay and finishing things out at Georgia, it’s easy to see why he is so popular among the Georgia fan base.

“I love it here. I love the guys here. The coaches are awesome,” McBride said. “I also look past football because I know football doesn’t last forever and the connections here that I would get, the networking that I would get would set me up for a great job afterwards and the education here is really good.”

McBride picked up two tackles in the Georgia win against Arkansas.

Defensive backs: Right as Tyson Campbell was putting all the pieces together as a sophomore he suffered a turf toe injury that hobbled him for much of the 2019 season.

While competing for first-team reps with the likes of Eric Stokes and DJ Daniel, many wondered how the former 5-star cornerback would play when he got onto the field in 2020.

Campbell seemed to answer those questions as he had an impressive pass break-up while working in single coverage in the win against Arkansas.

“I was confident with how the ball was released and how I got on the receiver,” Campbell said. “I knew I had Richard [LeCounte] inside and knew where my help was, so I felt like I was in good position to play the ball.”

Campbell added that he feels healthier, faster, strong and perhaps most importantly more confident than he was a season ago. The Bulldogs will need another strong outing from Campbell as Auburn as a number of strong wide receivers, particularly Seth Williams.

Related: UGA secondary vs. Auburn wide receivers will be strength-on-strength battle

“I am just focusing on this year. I am excited for what this team is going to do this year,” Campbell said. “I just feel like a better player in general.”

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