ATHENS — Six months later, Georgia football coach Kirby Smart hasn’t changed his mind about the Bulldogs’ defense.
The fifth-year head coach is excited about his players, no doubt, but he has maintained the qualifier he voiced following Georgia’s 26-14 win over Baylor in the battle of Top 10 teams in the Sugar Bowl.
“I’m excited about the defensive unit,” Smart said on a recent ESPN podcast. “I think the biggest concern is always complacency and, have we arrived.
“They’ve gotten a lot of hype off of returners and what they did last year, which does nothing for you this year.”
Georgia hasn’t held a football practice since it was in New Orleans on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing collegiate sports shutdown on March 12.
UGA, like other SEC schools, has been taking part in 8 hours of voluntary workouts per week since June 8.
The Georgia athletic department won’t allow for Smart’s football program to release the number of positive COVID-19 tests.
UGA confirmed last Monday, per UGA sports broadcast rights-holder WSB, that nearly 150 people have tested positive for COVID-19 among the school’s students and staff.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told DawgNation that director of sports medicine Ron Courson and his staff “have done a great job, and the coaches and student athletes have been listening to his direction.”
Smart is hoping a defense that ranked in the top 10 in the nation in all four major statistical categories will heed his words.
“I was a part of a lot defenses at Alabama that were coming off a really good year, and then came back in spring and laid an egg,” Smart said.
“I didn’t get to feel that or see that, and see the psyche of that group, and are they hungry, or are they complacent?”
Senior middle linebacker and captain Monty Rice made it clear during the offseason that he has bought into his head coach’s message.
Smart made that assertion in the midst of what would have been a postgame celebration for most teams.
“To be honest with you, the future’s only bright if those guys continue to work,” Smart said, asked in a roundabout what about 8 of the 11 defensive starters returning off the Sugar Bowl team.
“There’s a disease that creeps in at Georgia where kids believe they are better than they are and they read their own press clippings,” Smart said. “They’ll only be as good as they can be if they stay as hungry as they are.
“When you’re not hungry, you become average. And some of that, I think, has affected us in the past.”
Georgia’s defense ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense and run defense, and it was No. 3 in total defense and No. 8 in pass efficiency defense.
Smart said it didn’t seem to matter what UGA did against LSU this season. Even with the right defensive calls, players weren’t always able to execute.
“Yeah, we had a three-man, a four-man, a five-man, and a six-man rush, and we try to change those things up,” Smart said after the SEC title game.
“We got pressure. We didn’t finish. When we had a three-man rush, a lot of times he was able to hold the ball, but we had a lot of guys covering, and you’re fighting. We got them to third and long on that opening drive and didn’t get off the field, then they ended up converting to a touchdown.”
Departed UGA safety J.R. Reed cited poor tackling.
“We had a lot of plays out there we were supposed to make, and (Joe Burrow) just squeeze out of it, gets out of it,” Reed said. “We had a lot of guys on him, and he broke like three, four tackles.”
Alabama scored 35 points on the UGA defense in the 2018 SEC title game, with Jalen Hurts leading a second-half comeback against yet another Bulldogs’ defense that couldn’t finish the job.
Georgia could open this season with a Sept. 19 road game against the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa if the SEC follows the Big Ten’s lead and plays conference games only.
There’s also a chance the SEC could re-draw the schedule and add two more league games, should it turn to a conference-only slate.
Nothing has been decided, but the league’s ADs are meeting in person in Birmingham next Monday.
Georgia, meanwhile, could be practicing under Smart’s direction as early as Monday if it can get a waiver to start with the rest of the teams that open on Sept. 5.
The Bulldogs’ assigned start date was/is next Wednesday, on account of a Sept. 7 scheduled game against Virginia that might not take place if the ACC announces a conference-only slate as expected.
Smart will learn quickly if his team has settled into complacency.
“It’s a disease,” Smart said. “It just creeps in if you’re not careful, and you can’t have that. So I’m excited to see those guys.”