Q&A: Kirk Herbstreit on Georgia, Jake Fromm and Kirby Smart
ESPN and ABC college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was gracious enough to spend a few minutes Tuesday answering questions about the Georgia football team. Herbstreit touched on Jim Chaney’s offensive strategy, what he thinks of Jake Fromm, the Georgia defense, the national perception of the Mark Richt to Kirby Smart coaching change. And of course the big question around Athens: Whether UGA should want to play Alabama or Auburn.
Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, is participating in Allstate’s All Hands In promotion, which he also discussed. Thanks to Herbstreit for some insightful answers, and here we go:
Q: Let me ask you a question about Georgia’s offense that’s been percolating the last day or so. The offense as far as run-pass ratio is about 71 percent run right now, and a lot of that is skewed, as Kirby Smart has pointed out by them being in so many blowouts. But to win a championship does Georgia need to even that out eventually?
Herbstreit: I’m not a huge stat guy. But I am a huge watching-games guy. And Georgia to me is a [good] team because they have been very smart with their approach. It’s a lot like what Nick Saban has done in some cases, and maybe a Jim Tressel team, where their strength is their defense and their running game. And so if you’re a play caller you’re going to err on the side of calling a game to your strengths. Play field position. Play like a snake squeaking their prey. Instead of going for a quick strike. That’s not their game.
They’re not Oklahoma with Baker Mayfield or what Clemson does: ‘Hey let’s just score in three plays, no problem, let’s go.’ They’re more methodical. So I don’t know if Week 10 it’s fair to look back at their season and with a loss the way they suffered one at Auburn and say, ‘Well they need to be more balanced, they need to have this.’ They are who they are at this point.
“The best thing that you could do is maybe say, ‘Hey we’re going to still win with defense, we’re going to still win with field position, let’s win the turnover battle, let’s run the football.’ But when we get into these tougher games, guys, with teams that can match us at the line of scrimmage ― specifically the SEC championship, no matter who shows up there ― they’re going to have to go play-action pass on early downs more. They’re going to have to give Jake Fromm and that offensive line a better chance than being a ‘run on first down, run on second down, uh, oh third-and-5, third-and-7, now let’s ask the freshman quarterback to make a play.’ That’s just not who they are right now. They will be ― when Fromm gains more experience and they get better receivers. But for now that’s not their game. So to me you’ve got to hope that throwing on first-and-10 on play action will get the linebackers out of position, give you some easy throws to the tight end, or some easy throws to the receivers on their coverage. But I don’t think you can say, ‘Hey we’ve got to go into this game and be more 50-50 balanced to give ourselves a better chance.’ Just because I don’t think you can do that Week 11, Week 12.”
Q: Can you adjust that quickly, go from the Auburn game to the SEC championship in a few weeks and change your character, or add in enough plays so that if Jake Fromm has to lead them back, they can do that?
Herbstreit: Again, like I said, I think you put together an offense, and you put together play calls that you go into a Saturday with, and you might not get to everything you have. So I think the experience of going to Jordan-Hare and what they went through as a group, everybody’s entitled to how they might evaluate Georgia – and I do watch them every week – everybody’s entitled to how they can look at them and say, ‘This is what I would do.’
I don’t think they need to change anything. I think everything they have in their arsenal is there. I just think it’s a different mindset from Jim Chaney. I think it’s a different mindset from how they approach the attack. It’s not: ‘Hey this worked all year, we’re big bad Georgia, we can run the ball on anybody, we’ve got the best backs in the SEC, we’re doing to do this.’ Sometimes you run to set up the pass, and other times you’re going to have to pass to set up the run.
And I think if they would have the trip to Auburn back with a young quarterback, I would bet they’d say, ‘Look, we’re going to have to throw a bit more on early downs, and once we have a little success with that, then we can get back to running the football. Then we can get back to our linemen getting up those linebackers.’ But when you go into a game, and the defensive coordinator on the other side, and it’s a road game, his number one goal is we have to stop the run. We’re putting nine guys up there if we have to. We’re going to stop their running game. We don’t care what they do throwing the ball, we’re going to stop their running game.
That was [Auburn’s] approach. If you go back and watch the film, that’s what my point is, when a defense is going to approach a game like that you have to say, ‘OK, boom, put the ball in the belly of the tailback [and then] pull it out. Get those guys all up at the line of scrimmage to tackle the ball carrier and now you have a tight end out in the flat for a 5-yard pass. Not fancy, nothing crazy, you’re just doing a little flat route and he catches it, and he turns the corner, and he picks up 12 yards. That’s what I’m talking about.
So it’s not like they have to change the game plan, find some new plays. It’s more of how they approach it and how they attack, and it would not shock me at all that when they go to Atlanta it’s not going to be new plays. It’s going to be how they call them, and whether it’s Bama or Auburn, it’s going to be the same approach. They’re not going to let [Georgia’s] run game beat them. So Chaney’s got to say, ‘OK, no problem, play action on first-and-10, now I’m a linebacker, now I’m a safety.’ Now I’m like, ‘Wait a second, are they throwing here or are they running?’ Now I’m a little hesitant. Now I’m getting back to being able to run the ball a little easier. So that’s why I’m saying play-action early downs makes a defense indecisive and makes it much, much easier for linemen to be able to block them when a defense thinks like that.
Q: What do you think of Jake Fromm so far?
Herbstreit: I love him. There’s a lot to like about his upside. I’ve been really surprised, when I first watched him and I thought, how big is he? Is he a big guy, is he an athletic guy? I didn’t really know what to make of him. And of course watched him go on and play, and been really impressed with some of the intangibles he brings. But he’s also a lot bigger – I don’t know if he’s 220 or 225 – than I first thought of him.
I think the sky’s the limit for the kid. I think people underestimate [Fromm] because you see some freshmen in some of these systems today walk right in and play, and people just say, ‘No big deal, you’re a freshman, go in there and win a national championship.’ People have no idea how challenging it is to do what he’s doing. So as I said to you in the first answer, the strength of this team is the defense and the running game, and eventually it’s going to be Jake Fromm.
Right now they are kind of spoon-feeding him this offense where he’s throwing the ball 15, 16 times a game and he’s not throwing for a ton of yards. But they’re smart with how they’re using them.
And I don’t know if without him, if Jacob Eason’s there with all the hype, I don’t know if Georgia is in the position they’re in right now without Jake Fromm. He should be given a lot of credit. I think his leadership for a young guy, the intangibles come exploding off the screen. You can see the players want to play for him, which I think is huge. I’m looking forward to seeing him play in Atlanta. I can’t wait to watch how they put him in a position to make him more successful, whether it’s against Auburn a second time around or against Alabama.”
What do you think of Georgia’s defense: Was it exposed against Auburn or was it one bad game and this is still one of the best defenses in the country?
Herbstreit: I think that’s a fair question. I don’t think I necessarily look at them as being exposed. I think you make a great point that that particular day whether Georgia went in there or Alabama in there or you name it – if Oklahoma went in there – that was just one of those games where you knew they were going into a hornets nest, where you knew it was going to be challenging, because Auburn put everything into being able to beat Georgia, to being in a better position to get to the SEC championship and maybe control their own destiny.
By the way, Kerryon Johnson is one of the elite backs in the country that no one really talks about. I don’t think I look at that game and say [Georgia] got exposed. I think they got away from home and they got in a really tough environment, that you know when you travel around in the SEC, you see one or two of those a year. Sometimes it’s a home game and you’re loving life and sometimes you’re on the road and you’re just holding on for dear life. And that game reminded me of a young quarterback on the road holding on for dear life, and once the game got away from them it just spun out of control.
“So again I didn’t come away from that and say, ‘Well, Georgia’s got a lot of vulnerabilities on defense.’ I look at that as maybe a little bit of an aberration to who they really are. Especially with the way they played defense all year. I mean that was really the only game you can look at and say, ‘What the hell happened to that Georgia that day?’
Q: So the question everyone here is wondering: Does Georgia want to play Auburn or Alabama?
Herbstreit: I personally, if I were a Georgia fan, I would want Auburn. And the reason is not just because it’s big, bad Alabama, because how much fun would it be to see Kirby going up against Nick Saban? That would be so much fun.
But I think practically if you’re thinking about trying to win the game, Auburn and Georgia, they’re two competitive teams, and being able to beat a team twice in the same year, let alone within a month, is so hard to do. Because the intangibles, the human nature of Georgia playing in Atlanta as opposed to Jordan-Hare, imagine those Georgia players after what they went through in that stadium and that environment, how embarrassed they were, being able to take that field again against that same Auburn team. Think about the chip on their shoulder that they would have.
I think the intangibles would then flip and it would favor Georgia, just as much as a lot of the emotions favored Auburn in that first matchup because of the circumstances. I think in a rematch it would be completely flipped to the other field. Even though it’s a neutral field, 50-50 crowd, I still think because of that [first] game and what happened in that game, the more I’m thinking about it if I’m a Georgia fan I would definitely want Auburn to win the Iron Bowl and have a chance to get revenge.
“With Alabama, Nick Saban, his team is so programmed to get to Atlanta, there’ll be familiarity there because of Nick and Kirby. I think it would be a whole different animal there trying to take on Alabama. I think personally I would want Auburn there.”
Q: Obviously Georgia is doing great with Kirby. Mark Richt is doing great with Miami. What’s the national perception looking back on the decision Georgia made, and how everything’s working out?
Herbstreit: Well, I kind of had a front-row seat for all of this, with not only you guys in Athens with Mark Richt, but now watching Mark at Miami. I don’t want to speak for Mark. I’m just going by the way the program the last few years felt. It’s hard to stay in one place for that many years. I just feel like it just got kind of stale and uninspired. And I think as much as you could look at Mark Richt still having success on the field. …. But there was still something missing, especially the consistency in the big games. And so when they decided to make a move, even though you could look at his numbers and say, ‘How can you let this guy go?’ ― I understood. I totally understood it.
I think Kirby brought in a fresh [start]. A former player, a new passion, new recruiting, just a whole new regime. And that made sense for Georgia. And I think that’s great.
The only thing that surprised me out of all this was that Mark Richt went from kind of a flat-liner – and you know what I’m talking about from covering him – to all of a sudden getting to Miami. And I thought he was going to maybe go work on some mission trips and do things that were bigger than football with his wife. He’s such a strong Christian I thought he might do other things for the church and that type of thing, maybe that was his calling. But instead he goes to Miami, where he played, much like Kirby, and it’s almost like there’s a new energy and a new attitude, and he looks like he’s having fun, and he’s smiling. I don’t know if it’s the familiarity, I don’t know if it’s just being back at his old school, I don’t know if it’s the new setting, but he looks very different. When you talk to him there’s a look in his eye that I haven’t seen [since] either his latter years at Florida State as a coordinator or the early years when he was the head coach at Georgia.
So I think it’s worked out for everybody. But if you just look at the numbers you are maybe left scratching your heads if you were a big Mark Richt fan at Georgia, why did they let him go after all they had done? But it made sense to me why they let him go. Now you can look at both places that are both being led by former players, and there’s a new energy for both of them. So I think it’s a win for Georgia, and it’s definitely a win for Miami.
Q: Can you talk a little about the All Hands In program that you’re working on with Allstate?
Herbstreit: Really cool campaign with Allstate this year. I’ve worked with them for several years. This year they came up with three different components to it: All hands in off the field. It’s where fans of both sides of the game come together and help a community. This week it’s Auburn and Alabama, so if you follow the hashtag #allhandsin, you can get more information on what they’re doing. But there will be some college football legends there and they’re going to be building a permanent, durable, all-weather playground at a local public school, which is really cool. So that’s some of the stuff we’re doing off the field.
On the field is where I just pick on the Saturday night broadcast my team of the week, highlight a team that came together on the field.
And the social aspect of it, with all the negativity out swirling around in the social media world, Allstate decided to have some fun with that, and go to the opposite end. They’re calling it hashtag #sweettalk, so anybody that uses the hashtag #sweettalk or the hashtag #sweepstakes will be entered with a chance to earn a trip to the national championship. So they just tried to have some fun with that as opposed to everybody cussing each other out, teams going that are going against each other. If you use those hashtags it’ll give you a chance to maybe have a shot to get to the national title.
Cool. And we obviously don’t know anything about negativity on social media down here.
Herbstreit: No, not at all. Not at all. (Laughs.)