Most college football fans are inherently optimistic, especially during spring practice, when we get a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come in the fall and there’s no shortage of potential superstars and championship teams.
Georgia Bulldogs fans are no exception, and, just a week into the Dawgs’ 2018 spring practices, there have been bits of exciting fan bait already — dubbed “Dawg porn” by some — showing up in reports from the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens.
A prime example was a practice photo that went viral in online fan forums the past couple of days showing an impossibly ripped Elijah Holyfield taking a handoff with guns ablazin’. Yes, the rising junior tailback looks like he spent a good bit of time in the weight room during the offseason, but he wasn’t exactly a 98-pound weakling during his first two seasons at UGA.
Ah, but such things are red meat for a fan base hungry for signs that, even with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel gone, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs still will have a punishing running attack.
Along those lines, a popular spring pastime for fans is parsing the head coach’s comments for indications of likely strengths — or (gasp) concerns — in the coming season. Smart offered a few such tidbits this past week in two meetings with UGA beat reporters, immediately before the beginning of spring drills on Tuesday, and after the third practice Saturday (the first with the players in pads).
Those sessions produced encouraging indications that Smart knows his program must continue to improve to remain among college football’s elite, and that he’s not afraid to make necessary changes — such as reshuffling the offensive coaching staff’s responsibilities.
About that, Smart said: “I think if you continue to do the same things you’ve always done, you’ll get the same results usually guaranteed. We’re always trying to get better. I’m not accepting and saying where we were was good enough, by any means.”
But, there’s also been some predictable coachspeak, particularly on the subject of the quarterback competition between returning starter Jake Fromm and incoming 5-star signee Justin Fields. Asked at the post-practice briefing on Saturday how similar the competition between Fromm and Fields is to the 2017 competition between Fromm and Jacob Eason, Smart noted that Fromm enters this season with more game experience than Eason had last year. But, he added, last year there also was no true third QB competing, while this year there’s Stetson Bennett, and “I feel like we’ve got three guys there that are really competing and doing a good job.”
Yeah, right. Nothing against Bennett, who reportedly was impressive last year as scout team QB, but a nonscholarship walk-on third-stringer is an insurance policy, not a serious candidate for the starting job.
As for Fromm and Fields, Smart played it down the middle: “Justin is a very advanced quarterback, similar to how Jake was, coming in. … I’m extremely pleased with the leadership that both of them provide and also how they push the defense.’’
Smart has been a bit more frank about filling the hole left by the departure of All-America player Roquan Smith at inside linebacker. On the first day of practice, he put it this way: “You don’t replace a Roquan Smith … because there’s not going to be another Roquan Smith. There is not going to be a guy exactly like him. So, each one of our players has to create an identity for themselves. This team has to create a new identity for itself.”
After practice Saturday, he said of the candidates for Smith’s former position: “I think there are good players there. There’s not maybe a dynamic player, but they’ve got to do it by committee. … We’ve been rolling them, who goes with the 1s and 2s and 3s, because there’s really no defined starter, in my opinion.’’
Of course, not all the news from Week 1 was encouraging: Promising freshman cornerback Divaad Wilson tore an ACL in practice Saturday. But, Natrez Patrick is back, Smart anticipates Deangelo Gibbs returning in the fall, and early enrollee Zamir White is progressing well in his ACL rehab and is participating in spring drills, though the freshman tailback won’t take full contact.
Other bits gleaned from the first week include that Smart’s main concern with the tailbacks is who will step up to fill the special teams role played last year by Michel; and, with Christian Payne gone, the tight ends will be used whenever a fullback is needed, at least, for now. “We’ll also have guys coming in the fall who can help with that.’’
As is to be expected following a season in which Georgia played in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Smart has been asked to make comparisons between last year and this year — something he’ll no doubt have to face throughout the 2018 campaign.
It’s been encouraging to hear him stressing that what the 2017 team accomplished means nothing in terms of his team this year.
Smart said on the first day that he wants to drive home to his players that they can’t just assume they’ll pick up where the 2017 squad left off. “These kids have a very loyal, ambitious, hungry fan base that pats them on the back every day. I think our job is to bring the reality that there very simply could have not been a National Championship Game. If we don’t have the things happen in the second half against Oklahoma, we never get that opportunity.”
Smart thinks comparing the 2018 team with the 2017 version probably isn’t as relevant as comparing the 2017 team to its disappointing predecessor in 2016. “There wasn’t a whole lot of difference in the people on the roster in those two situations, but the outcomes were completely different. Why was that? Did we have an influx of talent all of a sudden in 2017, or did we have a different demeanor? Did we have a different attitude? Did we have a chip on our shoulder?
“We’re not going out with the mantra we’re a play away, two plays away, because as soon as you say that, we’re a play away from not being there, too. Bottom line, this team is distinctly different than that team. So, what will be the identity of this team is all I’m worried about.”
Smart said he hopes that identity will be a team that plays aggressively. “I watch all these basketball tournaments over and over and over. The more aggressive team wins. The team that’s playing aggressive. I’m not going out here not to lose. I’m going out there to play aggressive.”
That’s a lesson Smart learned the hard way last season — most notably, in the second half of the National Championship Game, when Georgia played too conservatively on offense, while Nick Saban rolled the dice and came up the winner.
Yes, spring in college football is a season when all things seem possible — except rewriting the heartbreaking ending of the previous season.