PHOENIX — Kirby Smart, holder of two jobs, has spent much of the past week watching video of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, whom Alabama’s defense will face in Monday’s national championship game. After Monday night, Smart will be – maybe you’ve heard – Georgia’s head coach.
Watson is from Gainesville, Ga. According to him, the homestate Bulldogs’ recruiting overture came too late. (Georgia had Brice Ramsey as its presumptive quarterback of the future; Ramsey is now a punter.) Smart’s hire of Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator has led some to believe the new Bulldogs won’t be any more open to a dual-threat quarterback than the old Bulldogs were. Not so.
“You want to recruit a great quarterback,” Smart said, speaking at Alabama’s half of Saturday’s Media Day. “He has the ball in his hands every play. You want a player like that to be the best player on your team.”
Would there be any reason Smart wouldn’t recruit a dual-threat quarterback for Georgia? “Absolutely not.”
The program Smart will depart has had only one dual-threat quarterback under Nick Saban. That was Blake Sims, who led Bama to the College Football Playoff last season and is, like Watson, a Gainesville High graduate. But Smart has had to defend against Cam Newton and Nick Marshall of Auburn, both of whom played in national championship games. Both Newton and Marshall were from Georgia.
In the run-up to the date with Watson and his Tigers, it has been mentioned that the quarterbacks who’ve given Smart’s defense the most problems – given that Alabama has lost only 12 games over eight seasons, it’s not as if anybody has trumped the Tide on a regular basis – were dual threats. Like Newton and Marshall. Like Heisman winners Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel. Like Chad Kelly and Bo Wallace of Ole Miss. (There’s half the 12 losses right there.)
“Mobile quarterbacks as a whole present a problem for every defense, not just us,” Smart said. “If he can get outside, that negates our strength, which is the front four.”
One of the reasons Smart has been the nation’s best defensive coordinator is that he’s not too proud to ask for help, even from someone who has bettered him. He spoke Satuday of a phone call he’d made to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman – who, like Smart today, was bound for a head-coaching job after the playoff ended – this time a year ago. Smart wasn’t calling to ask for tips on how to handle a vocational transition. He wanted to know how the Buckeyes had amassed 537 yards against his defense.
“You look at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘We just got our brains beat out,’ ” Smart said. Of Herman, he said: “He embarrassed us.”
The two spoke for two hours. “I asked what he saw as our tendencies and our weaknesses,” Smart said. “He was very respectful to give us the time.”
Then this: “He said they tried to get our big guys tired. They used bubble screens and went sideline-to-sideline early. Then they stuck it in the heart (meaning Ezekiel Elliott up the middle.) But they also converted like four third-and-10s. That demoralizes you. If they don’t do that, we’re on the sideline drinking Gatorade. We’ve tried to correct that game all year.”
Was that not odd, calling so soon after a loss to ask for help? Not really, Smart said. Michigan State’s coaches have already phoned asking to debrief him regarding the Spartans’ 38-0 loss in the Cotton Bowl. “I haven’t had time to return their call,” he said, and no wonder.
He’s making recruiting pitches and trying to hire a staff for Georgia while trying to game-plan for Deshaun Watson. Is that not carrying multi-tasking too far? “Every coach would love this,” Smart said. “I relish this opportunity. I love this opportunity. But right now I’m focused on one thing – the national title game.”
Back to Watson. Had Alabama deputized a scout-teamer to act as the Clemson quarterback in practice? “It’s impossible. If you could simulate that, he’d be starting for us.”
Then: “He runs more inside runs than Nick and Cam. He’s a unique player. He creates a lot of problems. If you’re a good offensive coordinator, you want to be able to run the same runs with your quarterback that you’d call for running backs. And then when you have a running quarterback who can incorporate the pro style … ”
Only once this week, Smart said, did he stop to ponder that he’s about to work his final game for Alabama. “It was when I was leaving the office the last time at 11:30 at night,” he said. “You’re leaving the office where you’ve spent the last nine years. It hits you then.”
Yes, but there’s new challenge awaiting in Athens. Speaking of which, ESPN analyst Mark May offered this Saturday: “I think Kirby Smart may be the best of the major hires this season.”
So, Smart was asked, how long before we see Georgia in a championship game? “That’s a hypothetical,” he said. “I don’t answer hypotheticals.”