ATHENS –Kirby Smart and Todd Grantham never have worked on the same coaching staff. That doesn’t mean they never worked together.
The various members of the Nick Saban coaching tree tend to gravitate toward each other, and so it was with Smart and Grantham. When Smart was working on Saban’s staff at LSU in the early 2000s, Grantham, then an NFL assistant, would stop by, and the two got to know each other.
They kept in touch, especially when Grantham came to Georgia in 2010 to become the defensive coordinator. By that time, Smart was running Alabama’s defense.
“I’ve known Todd for a long time,” Smart said. “I have communicated with him when we played like opponents when he was here [at Georgia] and we tried to help each other back and forth.”
No such help will occur this week. Grantham is now running Mississippi State’s defense, which he brings to Georgia on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) in a matchup of ranked opponents. Both are 3-0 to start the season.
This will be Grantham’s first time visiting Sanford Stadium since he left after the 2013 season, following four up-and-down seasons in Athens.
When asked about that on Monday night, Grantham, true to form, shrugged off the storyline.
“It’s another SEC game for us. It’s a road game. It’s our second conference game, which is the most important thing,” Grantham said in comments to reporters in Starkville, Miss., according to video posted on the Mississippi State website. “I just want to make sure we prepare the right way and go out and play a talented Georgia team.”
This of course isn’t the first time Georgia and Grantham have faced each other since he left. Georgia and Louisville met in the 2014 Belk Bowl, and Nick Chubb and company rolled up yards and points in a 37-14 victory.
Grantham will bring one of his former Georgia players with him this week. Christian Robinson, a starter at inside linebacker for Georgia, is now with Mississippi State in a support staff role, helping with the inside linebackers.
It’s early, but Grantham’s tenure at Mississippi State is off to a good start. His defense ranks third in the SEC in yards allowed and is coming off holding LSU in check in a 37-7 victory.
“I think Todd does a tremendous job,” Smart said. “He’s very smart, very knowledgeable, knows how to attack protections. He’s a guy that’s constantly working on getting better. He’s got these guys believing and playing really hard, really physical.”
Grantham returned the compliment.
“Kirby is an excellent coach,” Grantham said. “He’s an excellent recruiter. I mean when you look at the roster, he’s done a really excellent job of recruiting a lot of 4- and 5-stars who are talented.”
Grantham bolted from Georgia to Louisville after a disappointing 2013 season, when the Bulldogs were eighth in total defense, and the struggles of the defense led to an 8-5 season. But the defense that year was also very young, and Grantham had some good years at Georgia.
The SEC East champion team in 2011, for instance, had a defense ranked fourth in the SEC, as did the 2010 team.
Statistically, it was a good run for Grantham in Louisville. The Cardinals’ defense ranked 14th nationally in Grantham’s final year there, and 18th and sixth the previous years.
Mississippi State lured Grantham back to the SEC – essentially in a trade of coordinators, as Peter Sirmon went from Mississippi State to Louisville – and now Grantham returns to the place he used to call home.
“They’ve got several NFL backs. You look at Sony [Michel] and Nick [Chubb], both those guys are going to be playing on Sundays next year,” Grantham said of his former team’s star tailbacks. “The quarterback: I’ve been really pleased with the freshman [Jake Fromm], as far as him being able to go to Notre Dame and win a game like that. You’ve obviously got something to you, you’ve got a little bit of the it factor. So he’s a guy who’s going to be good for them moving forward. And of course when [Jacob] Eason comes back, he’s a guy who played for them last year, and he’s got a really strong arm.”