Mailbag: Has there been a culture change yet at Georgia?

Kirby Smart has made changes, but some take awhile to take hold, if they do at all.

You could plan a pretty picnic But you can’t predict the weather – OutKast, “Miss Jackson”

This is the rare mailbag in which we don’t address the Big Story of The Week, because we’re pretty sure the moment we hit “post” there will be a decision, and whatever we wrote about it may very well be obsolete.

Plus, doubtless many of you are weather-weary and ready to tackle some other subjects. So let’s start with one that’s not awkward or sensitive or anything like that at all.

Seth, I read earlier this week in an article from Bruce Feldman that he’s hearing there are some issues behind the scenes at UGA: “Word is first-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is struggling with his overall management style of the football program and its effect on the operational aspect of the team.”  Have you heard of similar issues and if so, can you elaborate on what the “operational aspect of the team” is referring to? – Ed Perry

I like Bruce personally and respect his work. It’s worth remembering that he tweeted last November that Georgia power brokers were considering moving on from Richt. We were hearing that and reporting that too.

This time, what Bruce wrote was a bit more vague and open to interpretation. I’m sure he worded it that way intentionally. Frankly I don’t know exactly what he was referring to and who he was hearing it from.

If I had similar info I would write it too. Here’s the way I’d put it: Smart is a first-year head coach who has been able to hit the ground running as far as recruiting, but other aspects of the job may be a tougher transition. That’s the case with almost all first year coaches.

Some of it is judging Smart against Nick Saban, which is unrealistic. People assumed for some reason that things would suddenly become Alabama 2.0 as far as detail-oriented, discipline, etc. The end of the Tennessee game – a player running on the field to draw a penalty – is a visible example of what we can see behind the scenes. There’s still some work to do.

Along those lines ..

What exactly is the “culture change” players occasionally mention? My impression is idea of “culture change” is overplayed, or there were real Mark Richt shortcomings that have never been detailed. In other words, CMR didn’t demand discipline, hard work in practice, let players know if they messed up, etc? – Rob Shapard

My answer today is that yes it is overrated. I reserve the right to change my answer down the line. But for now, either there is no culture change, or there is one but we don’t know yet how drastic it is, or whether it’s for good or not. There are many small changes – I wrote this week about Smart’s willingness to call out players publicly, and Brandon Kublanow said that was “part of the culture change.”

But for now there are just two main culture changes: 1) Financial support to the program, which ramped up before Richt’s final year and is now basically free-flowing, and 2) the Alabama-ization that actually began with Jeremy Pruitt’s arrival in 2014. Support staffers, quality control coaches, and a huge emphasis on recruiting.

But so far the results on the field are the same: A gut-wrenching loss after a player mental mistake? Check. A lopsided loss in which the team didn’t seem to bother getting off the bus? Check.

Could it be that, down the line, it’s obvious the program had become stale under Richt, with complacency abounding, and Smart has turned that around? Yeah, it’s entirely possible. It will just take time to determine whether that’s true.

People keep using Saban’s first year as a reason to give Smart a pass but Bama was coming off 3 years of NCAA sanctions when he showed up so situations are not close to being similar. That being said I looked at every national championship winning coach since 2005 (Brown, Meyer at Florida and Ohio State, Malzahn, Saban, Fisher, and Miles) and they all had a common theme in their first year. All of them improved on the record from year before regardless of situation. People keep bringing up talent as reason and I agree talent level is behind that of Alabama but there is plenty of talent to win every game on schedule with exception of maybe the Ole Miss game.  Given that and fact we will be favored in every game except the two losses (even though we all know Tennessee should have been a W) why do you think that the expectations are so low for Smart this year?  

Also for S’s and G’s how do you think fans and media would have reacted had the last 5 weeks happened under Richt’s tenure? The close games against inferior opponents followed by this teams no show in the big game against Ole Miss then the special teams/clock management/mental errors against Tennessee? – Rob McRae

Well, a lot to unpack there.

So I actually won’t, and will let your points stand for others to judge. (Malzahn didn’t win a national championship, by the way, but he did win an SEC title in his first year and came very close to the natty.)

And OK, you did ask me one question: Why are expectations so low for Smart this year? I don’t know that they were. Few expected them to win the SEC, while only a few more may have wanted to win the SEC East. What I think people wanted to see was a competitive team week in and week out, free of the Ugly Loss Syndrome that led to the end of the Richt era, and for real hope going forward into 2017.

So far, the verdict is decidedly mixed, isn’t it? But we’re only five games in.

UGA quarterback Jacob Eason (10) runs a throwing drill at Monday’s practice. (Joshua L. Jones/Special)

Do you feel like we saw Eason “grow up” a little last Saturday. I know he wasn’t flawless, and as perfect as that last Riley TD pass was, we cannot base his entire performance off of that. I know he had his mistakes, yet I felt like he seemed a little calmer at times in the pocket and showed a little bit more scrambling ability and passing accuracy under pressure. And come on, that final drive was masterful. Just wondering what your take on this is, oh Sagacious One.

Thanks again for all the great work. I speak for all of Dawgnation that we all appreciate it. – Ben from The Wild Feathers

Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for throwing the mailbag for a loop – I’m supposed to be quoting songwriters, and now the songwriters are sending in questions! (Here’s a link to their site. Ben didn’t ask me to do that, but when someone butters me up I’ll do practically anything for them.)

Eason is indeed growing up very quickly, to the point where I dare wonder this: Will the best player on the field Saturday (or whenever they play the game) be Jacob Eason? Normally you’d say Nick Chubb, or even Sony Michel, but injuries and blocking problems lead me in the direction of Georgia’s quarterback. It was obvious to anybody who watched the spring game that he had the skills. And as I’ve written before, the buzz over the summer was that he was also showing the intangibles – leadership and work ethic. It would only be a matter of how quickly he picked up the playbook and learned to read defenses.

That’s not to say Eason still doesn’t have kinks to work out. He sails some passes. He’s still getting used to a pass rush, occasionally too quick to panic. And he still misses seeing a defender. If the craziness of the final minute doesn’t happen, the takeaway from the Tennessee game might be Eason’s fumble in the end zone and then his interception.

But Eason’s moxy in coming back from all that was quite impressive. Right now the SEC’s top two quarterbacks are probably Chad Kelly and Josh Dobbs, with Drew Lock, Trevor Knight and Austin Allen right behind. But Eason and another freshman, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, aren’t far behind and could be in the conversation by the end of the season.

Side note: Wouldn’t “The Side Notes” be a good name for a band? 

With Jacob Eason coming into his own and showing out with his elite passing skills, also assuming he will only get better as he continues to get more comfortable on such a big stage, and with the assurance Jake Fromm will be next in line, when do we start seeing an increase in the quality of talent coming in at wide receiver? It seems like the big names continue to flock towards Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and the likes. – Ryan Shephard, Nashville

The quarterback play is the sales pitch Georgia’s staff will be making. And in James Coley it has someone who’s respected as a recruiter. So let’s see how that bears fruit.

Three receivers are currently committed for 2017: Four-stars Mark Webb (Warminster, Penn.) and Trey Blount (Atlanta) and three-star Matt Landers (St. Petersburg, Fla.). Webb and Blount are listed at 6-foot-2, but Landers is 6-5. Meanwhile, the big remaining fish are four-stars Jeremiah Holloman (Covington), who’s 6-2, and Nico Collins (Pinson, Ala.), who’s 6-4. … Coley is almost requiring all his receivers to be taller than 6-2.

Recruiting is vital, of course, but I still argue that development is too. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett were three-star recruits. A good position coach (Tony Ball), good quarterback (Aaron Murray) and play-caller (Mike Bobo) turned them into very productive receivers. With the right development, guys like Riley Ridley, Michael Chigbu, Jayson Stanley and Tyler Simmons can become very good receivers too.

Even with a heartbreaking loss to UT last weekend, would you consider it a breakout game for some of our freshmen and team. – Scott Freeman

If that Hail Mary doesn’t get caught, imagine the feeling around this program, and the optimism about this year – maybe in the driver’s seat in the SEC East – and the future. The winning touchdown would have been from one freshman (Eason) to another (Ridley), with another (Nauta) catching another long touchdown. Brian Herrien with another big game, and defensive linemen like Julian Rochester and David Marshall (though he missed this game) contributing.

This freshman class could end up being one of the best in Georgia history.

Side note No. 2: When I was a kid, I daydreamed about being in an imaginary band I named the Mixed Emotions. I have no idea why I thought that was a good name.  

Besides Eason are there any 1st round draft picks on UGA’s current roster? – JMike024 (again)

I’m not in love with using people’s Twitter handles rather than their (hopefully) real names. But this one is so good I’ll let it slide.

Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have first-round talent, it’s just a matter of their health and whether NFL teams want to use first-round picks on a running back. Obviously Todd Gurley was, but he has that once-in-a-generation blend of size, speed, physicality and vision.

Trenton Thompson, who came out of Albany known as “Big Baby,” is growing up fast for the Georgia Bulldogs. JOSHUA L. JONE / SPECIAL

Trent Thompson has first-round ability. He doesn’t get much notice right now, but he’s a defensive tackle in a 3-4, so they don’t rack up stats.

Isaiah Wynn may have seen his stock slip the first five games, but it could go back up. But if he projects at guard – just as Greg Pyke probably does – that makes it extremely hard to go in the first round.

Now we’re talking way down the line, but Isaac Nauta looks like a pro, and there are a handful of other guys I’d say have the potential if they develop right.

Side note No. 3: Am I aware that Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry has for years had a running gag about things that would make good names for rock bands? Yes. Did I sort of steal that with the first side note? Yes. Am I apologetic? Yes, if you’re one of Barry’s lawyers, but he won a Pulitzer and I’m just sitting here trying to break down depth charts, so help me out here.

Did you think Michel & Herrien made the 2016 version of Chubb look a BIT sluggish, or did the OL just perform drastically better? – Jonathan Lewis

It’s a combination of the two. Even when healthy, Chubb’s calling card wasn’t his speed – other than when he got to the second level and was able to get in gear and out-run defensive backs. But it’s no surprise that Chubb looks slower compared to Michel and Herrien, whose speed is more important to their running ability.

Is the lack of sacks due to spread offenses and dual threat QBs? Where is the development of #7 and #17 on defense? – John Shevlin

Georgia only has six sacks this year, second-least in the SEC, after Vanderbilt. No Bueno. But you’re right that the type of offenses they’ve faced needs to be taken into consideration: Chad Kelly and Josh Dobbs can run, and both did evade would-be sacks, while Drew Lock threw lots of quick passes. Georgia’s about to face a South Carolina team that’s given up 11 sacks, and has games remaining with Auburn (13 sacks) and Kentucky (17). That may help pad the total.

Georgia coaches and players also say sacks are overrated, and that they focus on “affecting the quarterback,” and that they’ve done a better job of that. Still, this is turning into a rather disappointing statistical career for the Wolf Pack, as Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins didn’t rack up sacks either.

I have heard rumors that it is on the table to close in the scoreboard end of Sanford Stadium, but you could still see the field from the bridge. Have you heard anything about it or timeline. – Jean and Toby Williams

Yes, they are planning on refurbishing that side of the stadium in order to move Georgia’s locker room there, and to build a recruiting area adjacent to it. That was something Mark Richt wanted, and the last I checked there was money allocated to study the feasibility and cost of it. However, I do remember being told that it would not effect the bridge or the ability to see the field from there. Even if they didn’t care about fans being able to see from there, they like the effect (in person but also on TV) of being able to see the bridge from the stadium.

I’m just wondering how it works as a journalist following one team closely.  I’m sure you end up really liking some of the players and coaches. Do you find yourself pulling for them, even as you’re supposed to be “objective”? – Jody Deming

Good question, and you’re absolutely right that we’re supposed to be objective – though I take it seriously enough that I wouldn’t be in quote marks – but that we also end up really liking some of the people we deal with. Many people, actually.

It’s easier to take shots at people or write negative things when you don’t have to see them the next day. Beat writers do, as do most columnists. That’s why when you do criticize people you better make sure it’s fair and factual. The good people on the other end understand that you have to do that. And if something you write ticks them off, hopefully they’ll get over it after a few days.

But a great journalist who took me under his wing a couple decades ago, Mark Asher at The Washington Post, once told me: “In this business, you don’t have friends, you have sources.” I’ve tried to remember that, but also balance it against it remembering that you’re dealing with real people, who have families and careers too.

 

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