Report card: Kirby Smart’s first year at Georgia

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What to make of Kirby Smart's first season?

Kirby Smart never put any numerical expectation on this season, and was always careful about setting the hopes high or low. It wasn’t until a few minutes after the season ended that Smart summed up best what his task is at his alma mater.

“Look, Georgia’s been successful. We just want to take it another step,” Smart said.

The step obviously wasn’t taken in Year 1. In fact, based on the record and just how the team looked, on the field it was a step back. But based on recruiting and how many young players were used, it may still end up having been a good first year.

Fair or not, many will always judge Smart against his predecessor — who was successful, but couldn’t take the final step. Well, Smart lost more games in Year 1 than Mark Richt in Year 15 — but Smart had the same win total (eight) as Richt’s first year at Georgia.

Here are season-ending grades:

OFFENSE: D

Jim Chaney admitted it himself: The production was disappointing. Georgia had its lowest-scoring output since the schedule expanded to 12 games. It had the least total yards since 2006. After ranking 83rd nationally in total offense last year, causing Brian Schottenheimer to be chased out of town, Georgia fell to 87th, as of Saturday morning’s bowl games. There was some good: Isaiah McKenzie’s emergence, Nick Chubb returning from injury to gain 1,130 rushing yards, Sony Michel adding 840 yards, and freshman quarterback Jacob Eason having a solid freshman campaign (2,430 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions.) But the struggles of the offensive line and the questionable play-calling — it just didn’t fit the team’s personnel — resulted in what was simply one of the least effective Georgia offenses in some time.

DEFENSE: B

The question before the season was whether Georgia’s defense — especially the front seven — would be too young or whether the talent would win out. It proved to be the latter. Georgia stood 16th nationally in total defense after the bowl game, which is down nine spots from last year, but that’s nothing to be ashamed about, considering the youth up front. The secondary took a step back, though still proved adept at forcing turnovers, as did the front. Georgia leads the SEC right now in turnovers forced, with 27, with 15 of those being interceptions. The defense won Georgia’s biggest game of the year, the 13-7 upset of Auburn, with the lone touchdown being Maurice Smith’s pick-6. Defensive linemen Trent Thompson, Jonathan Ledbetter, David Marshall and Julian Rochester were borderline dominant. Inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick became very good run stoppers. Pass rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy finished with 5 sacks each, not great, but still on par with what Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd accomplished. Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker essentially traded places with Jeremy Pruitt, and the results were the same: Georgia’s defense remained pretty good.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

Yeah … not much you can do to gussy this up. For years, Georgia fans wanted a special teams coordinator, and they got one in Shane Beamer, but the results were the same. Maybe worse. But Beamer gets too much blame: Just like the Richt era, special teams largely remains a team effort among the coaches, and they’ll have to change things up to be better next year. The good: Rodrigo Blankenship, once given the job, went 14-for-17 on field goals and never missed an extra point. The punt return unit finished sixth in the SEC. Otherwise, it was fair-to-middling, with a few too many special teams mistakes.

COACHING: C

The season began and ended with good wins, but in between it was rough. Georgia finished the season not only 8-5 — below most expectations — but also only plus-7 in scoring margin. Smart, in his first year as a head coach, probably learned some things about himself and what it takes to be captain of the ship, as they say in the coaching industry. There were enough good things to be hopeful about going forward: The team didn’t pack it in and rallied for wins against TCU, Auburn, Missouri and Kentucky. But the five losses also ran the gambit: Disappointing home loss to an inferior team (Vanderbilt), blowout road loss to a not-so-great team (Ole Miss), blowing a fourth-quarter lead (Georgia Tech), a freaky Hail Mary (Tennessee) and then of course … Florida. Throw in the closer-than-it-shoulda-been win over Nicholls State, and there was plenty to want to forget about in 2016.

OVERALL: C

Before the season, this reporter wrote that the main thing Georgia fans probably would like to see in Year 1 of the Smart era was a competitive team, week in and week out. A championship would’ve been nice, but wasn’t expected. They just wanted to see a team that fought hard every week, no return of the Ugly Loss Syndrome, and showed great signs for the future. Well, there were good signs, mainly because of the youth on the field, but obviously some of the major recent failings of Georgia football didn’t go away. It wasn’t a good season. But there was just enough that it wasn’t a bad one either. Now … on to Year 2.

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