What changes will we see in Kirby Smart in Year 2?
ATHENS – It could happen at any moment. Every player on the Georgia football team knows it. They just hope it’s not them on the receiving end when it does.
If the Bulldogs have a name for the event that they share among themselves in the locker room, they’re keeping it to themselves. But they all know there’s nowhere to hide when it happens.
For the sake of today’s discussion, let’s just call it “The Wrath of Kirby.”
It’s what happens when Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a human electron the way he zips around Woodruff Practice Fields every day, happens to spot somebody doing something the wrong way during practice. It doesn’t matter where Smart happens to be at the time. He could be on one end of the field watching the offense but catch a glimpse of a defensive back on the other end using improper technique in a secondary drill.
And just like that, he’s off.
Sony Michel can only hope to replicate the quickness of Smart’s first step as he makes a beeline for the offending party. Players can never be sure what they might encounter upon Smart’s arrival. Sometimes it might be a helmet slap for a good play. More often, though, they’re about to receive a quick and intense one-on-one lesson on the fundamentals of football.
But there’s one thing of which all the Bulldogs are acutely aware: Their coach is paying attention, and he’s not about to let something slide.
“Oh, yeah, that’s definitely him,” junior linebacker Roquan Smith said with a chuckle Monday. “If he sees a receiver messing up, basically he’s going to go chew him up and what not.”
No player is immune from such attention. Smith, a front-line player and one of Georgia’s top candidates to receive a postseason individual award, often has found himself the subject of Smart’s wrath. Smith happens to play a position that Smart gives close attention. Smart coached inside linebackers and served as defensive coordinator at the end of his stint at Alabama.
If you’re a subject of one of his impromptu lessons, it probably means he expects more of you, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Smith said of catching the blunt end of Kirby’s Wrath. “He’s a guru from the defensive side of the ball. I can speak from that standpoint. He knows what it takes to get you to that next level as well as molding you into the best guy you can be on and off the field while you’re here.”
Senior wide receiver Javon Wims was the focus of the most public instance of the classic Smart conditioning coaching method. During a closed scrimmage attended by a large group donors and football lettermen, Wims decided he’d do a standing back flip after catching a long touchdown pass from Jacob Eason.
He found himself the focus of Kirby’s Wrath and spent the rest of the day running the steps at Sanford Stadium. Unconfirmed reports are that Wims has not executed a back flip since.
Of course, that’s just the kind of coach Smart is. He knows no other way. He has been a hands-on coach since he first strapped on a whistle at Valdosta State 17 years ago.
There is some argument that now that he’s head coach and needs to make measured decisions on the sidelines during games, Smart might want to be a little less engaged in the fundamentals. It might have been a distraction during a few games last year, as the Bulldogs sputtered to an 8-5 record in Smart’s first season as head coach.
Smart’s second season begins Saturday as Georgia hosts Appalachian State in the season opener. We won’t know until then whether he will employ the same game-day style and demeanor that he did last season. He was excited during the season opener last year against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. Remember that photo sequence captured by AJC photographer Curtis Compton in which Smart often seemed to be 4 feet off the ground during that game?
Generally, though, Smart expects to be much the same coach. He said earlier this summer that he reached out to confidantes in the coaching world for critiques about what he could do better or differently. But for the most part, he is who he is, and that’s who he shall be.
Smart was asked how he might be different this second time around during his weekly news conference on Monday, but he wasn’t in a very reflective or contemplative mood five days before the Bulldogs play for real.
On whether he felt more comfortable heading into Year 2, Smart said: “It’s hard to measure. I can’t quantify it for you by a number or a measure. Certainly having played however many games, it makes you much more comfortable coming into this season as opposed to the first one, but I don’t know exactly how much more.”
As for how the Bulldogs might have prepared differently for this season, Smart sounded as though the players were awaiting liftoff at Cape Canaveral.
“You have a checklist for your first game of things that could come up throughout the year. So you go through that checklist. When you say something differently, the biggest thing for us is it is a different opponent, it is in a different venue, it’s in a different place, a little different time. Weather conditions could be a little different than the [Georgia] Dome. So we are going through our checklist. We are executing everything we have done in the past to make sure we have every situation that could come up covered. As you well know, sometimes the unexpected can happen, so the biggest thing for us is being prepared for that.”
So basically, that’s a “no.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Probably the biggest adjustment from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Smart regime was made by the players. Players always have the most difficult transition to make in a coaching change, going from years of doing things one way to a season of doing them another.
Now that they’ve been operating under Smart for going on 20 months, there’s a lot to be said for knowing what to expect and what’s expected.
“Your first year, you actually don’t know what they’re going to do in certain situations,” Smith said of the transition to a new coaching staff. “But I feel like after a year being in his system, we know what he’s going to do in situations. … We’ve had a year to actually grow closer and have a bond among each other. It’s awesome to have an extra year now and, rolling into the second year, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
And when the Wrath of Kirby comes their way, the Bulldogs are ready for it.