Kirby Smart will begin to show off his personality over the next five months. He’ll tour the Bulldogs Clubs and meet the media daily during spring practice and this summer at SEC Media Days.
Those impressions will paint the picture of what Smart will be like in his first experience as a head coach. Yet there are already hues of that showing up on the recruiting trail and his interactions with high school coaches.
He’s been on the job at UGA for less than three months. That’s pretty hard to believe considering all the moves he’s made.
So, what’s he really like?
“Coach Smart kind of has that Nick Saban side to him and a Mark Richt side to him,” Five-star quarterback prospect Trevor Lawrence said. “He seems like a mixture of both men. Nick Saban can be a little intimidating sometimes, but you know Coach Richt was real nice and down to Earth. He’s just kind of a mixture of both of that. It makes him real easy to talk to, but I can see how he could have that Nick Saban side where he stresses every single little thing as a coach.”
Some of those vignettes have already appeared in stories. Some have not. Here’s a quick tour of what we know about the Smart era so far.
10 things we’ve learned about Kirby Smart at UGA
Call him Kirby
Several readers expressed concern over how often recruits referred to Smart as “Kirby” and not “Coach Smart” or “coach” in their comments. They do so because that’s the tone Smart sets from their first meeting. He asks them to call him Kirby. That immediately breaks the ice and starts building a bond for a long-lasting relationship. Smart has long been regarded as one of the finest recruiters in the conference. That’s a good reason why.
Turnovers will be as prized as those hedges
Creating and preventing turnovers will be the lifeblood of the program. He’s picked that up from top NFL minds like Dallas Cowboys coach (and Princeton grad) Jason Garrett. It doesn’t matter the brilliance of the schemes on either side of the ball — turnovers wreck those best-laid plans. Smart said Alabama tracked its turnovers over the last few years and concluded each takeaway was worth 3.5 points.
Sacks and stats? UGA would rather have the ball.
Broadcast game copies of each turnover created that week in NFL games led every Alabama meeting. The Crimson Tide handed out a wrestling championship replica belt to the player who created the most turnovers in practice each day. The same applies to the offensive side of the ball. What are those guys doing each day to prevent turnovers? That will be emphasized, too.
Players will be trained to avoid turnovers with more than old school strip drills. The new model is creating adverse game simulations. Chase drills. Challenge drills. Managers will be swatting quarterbacks with a bag to simulate the chaos of a collapsed pocket. A defender in a drill will be assigned to make the tackle. Another will be tasked with trying to punch the ball out. Players that show the tip of the ball to a defense are regarded as “tip violators.” When Alabama learned from Garrett that a large percentage of fumbles by backs came in the midst of a stiff arm or the player putting his hand on the ground, they practiced those situations.
“You have to simulate the act that causes the fumble,” Smart said.
That’s not the only emphasis that should follow Smart to UGA.
When interceptions occur, Smart’s teams will be coached how to set up a big return. Run to the sideline? Meh. The new model is getting to the numbers and tasking the rest of the unit to block high away from the return and give an athlete the space for a big return. “Find blocks and don’t watch,” Smart said.
The recruiting is now off the chain
Smart understands a weekend with a closed door is a moment for a top prospect to go see another campus they might interested in. Look for it to be routine for UGA to have at least 1-2 weekends per month when it hosts a couple of big-name prospects on an unofficial visit. That’s also true in year-long recruiting and not just big pushes in May, June, July, December and January. Look for more mid-week visits, too.
UGA will also gear up to win any arms race in recruiting. Smart came with the whole coaching staff on one in-home visit and brought along a live bulldog. When Alabama flew in on a helicopter to visit an elite receiver, Smart followed suit in a helicopter of his own.
“He said he couldn’t believe Alabama flew a slow helicopter to come out there and get speed,” said UGA signee Tyler Simmons. “He said he’d fly an F-15 jet out there to get me.”
Simmons did flip from Alabama and eventually signed with UGA.
He’s there to coach players to win
Smart is the son of a coach who readily speaks that language. When he met with Georgia’s high school coaches in January, his presentation was direct. It held the room because it was all football with a few salty terms mixed in. He cracked jokes, drew laughs and shared his core football beliefs freely. He was quick to admit coaches copy others when they see something works. His presentation was laced with NFL examples. It was how coaches talk high-level ball among peers. Smart’s aim will still be to build young men into great citizens, husbands, fathers and draft picks. But the little things that win games will now the bread-and-butter of UGA football, too. That was made abundantly clear.
He thinks bigger than big
Smart wants anywhere from 93,000 to 100,000 fans at G-Day in April. He hopes to see 1,000 coaches at the UGA Clinic right before Easter. Those will only roughly double the previous record totals for those events.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians will deliver the keynote at that clinic. Former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer will also speak. Former Georgia All-American and Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott and former quarterback and No. 1 pick Matt Stafford are also going to be on hand. Every coach of a reigning Georgia high school state championship program is a part of the program.
A new look at special teams
Smart will come at special teams from a defensive coordinator’s view to emphasize field position. Shane Beamer was hired and given the dual roles of tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Mark Richt’s teams never had a special teams coordinator.
UGA used a scholarship to land U.S. Army All-American punter Marshall Long, but Smart places a different value on kickers. His plan is to bring preferred walk-ons to campus and have them battle for the job. The guy who gets the starting nod still has to perform well on Saturdays to get a scholarship. If this sort of plan is in place for specialists, just imagine what the strategy will look like regarding squib kicks and field position at the end of key rivalry games.
Smart knows that NFL coaching legend Bill Belichick starts off every meeting with a special teams clip. It sounds like future UGA team meetings could start with either special teams or a clip about turnovers. Or both.
His defense will seek mismatches the way offenses do
Smart calls all the hurry-up and multi-layered offensive coordinators “gurus” and “geniuses” for their tricks. He feels there are no “gurus” on defense because every coordinator sees their guys get “toasted” at least once a year. He believes the defensive line controls college football. Look for his teams to emphasize that in recruiting. His first signing class had five defensive linemen and might add at least one more. UGA will always be on the lookout for true “3” technique defensive tackles who command double teams.
Smart’s defensive schemes will aim to isolate his guys on offensive players who do not have the skills to do block well in space. The offensive play-callers get the ball in the hands of their elite athletes. Smart will bring pressure with his elite talents on defense. He’ll play run defense with his big guys. He loves the two-man coverage on the back end of the secondary.
“Nothing better than playing two-man on the back end until you play Deshaun Watson and it doesn’t work real well,” Smart said. “He takes off going and he’s got vertical penetration. If you’re playing a traditional pocket quarterback you’re not as worried about contain. You’re not as worried about that guy scrambling.”
Rep it. Demand it. Get it.
Smart told a group of high school coaches about his philosophy for substituting players in the face of today’s tempo offenses. They practice personnel groupings that are ready to substitute depending on the down and distance when the ball is marked. He has “big people” packages and “little people” or fast guy personnel groups. “We’re going to sub no matter what,” Smart said. “We are just going to do it really fast. It literally becomes ice hockey out there. You’re jumping in the rink and jumping out of the rink. We’re going fast. To me, the only way you get good at that is to practice it. If (the offense) can do it, you can do it.” Florida State coaching legend Bobby Bowden told Smart once you get what you demand out of your players. He’s never forgotten it.
There will be a plan so freshmen play early
Smart can roll off the names of freshmen who played in every game last year at Alabama and Georgia. He aims to give talented freshmen players very specific roles and reduce the cramming of how much they must learn to hit the field. UGA also did this extensively last year under former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
If a 5-star cornerback can cover the slot receiver extremely well, that’s his job. “If you coach the kid and demand it, you can get it,” Smart said. “But a lot of that has to be on the desire and the ability of the kid to learn it.”
If he has a great pass rusher, he doesn’t want to harness that talent by giving them too much to think about. He wants them to take off and go. He wants to get his elite athletes on the field by giving them something specific that they can do well.
“We had kids that were talented enough (to play) their freshman year who couldn’t get out there because of the complexity of the scheme,” Smart said. “I’m going to sell the scheme as a way to get a kid there knowing he can get to the next level once he learns it but not be stupid on my part and not have the best players out there. It is a fine line between the two.”
No player is off the market. Depth charts won’t have no vacancy signs.
The new UGA staff has already quickly flipped commitments from Alabama (three times), Auburn, Iowa State, Louisville and Virginia Tech. That’s a pretty sterling track record for a group that has only been complete since the middle of January. The new UGA staff has also quickly made their minds up on a player they want and resulted in quick action.
He also makes sure each class is stacked with an anchor at the premium skill positions. He’s already landed an elite quarterback for the Class of 2016 (Jacob Eason) and now 2017 (Jake Fromm) but he’s going recruit his old pair of silver britches off to sign the best guy for the Class of 2018 with Lawrence.
Get as many great players as you can. Then try to squeeze in one or two more. That’s the Smart way.
Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.