ATHENS — Georgia is two weeks from its annual G-Day extravaganza at Sanford Stadium. And while coach Kirby Smart says the Bulldogs aren’t anywhere close to being ready to put on a show, it’s not really about that.
On Saturday, UGA held its first full-scale scrimmage in advance of the annual spring intrasquad game. That the Bulldogs had to conduct it inside the Payne Indoor Athletic Facility was a minor inconvenience. And while Smart said the Bulldogs have “a long way to go to be the football team we need to be,” he characterized the scrimmage as “really good, upbeat.”
“The kids are buying in and competing,” Smart said. “I thought both offensive units moved the ball well. Defensively we played hard. We’ve just got a lot of young guys and some guys banged up on the defensive line, and it makes it tough. But I do think the guys are buying in and playing hard.”
Georgia wants and is expecting a packed Sanford Stadium for G-Day on April 21. Smart already has challenged fans to flock to the game, like he did for “93K Day” in 2016. But any concerns he has expressed about the team this spring — and there have been several — have less to do with having them ready to play well that day than in the fall.
But competition has stepped up considerably among the players for the right to be included among the “1s,” or the starters. And those roles will be defined during the next two weeks.
The players know that and are responding in kind.
“I think effort is a good word,” said Smart, when asked what the coaches are seeking. “I think physicality is right there with that because we don’t tackle day to day like a lot of teams do. We’re going to tackle in scrimmages, so [Saturday] was an effort-and-physicality day where guys get a chance. The whistle doesn’t blow early. We go all the way to the ground. It’s always good to see who plays well when that happens. That was the goal, to have good special teams, good competition, and I thought we had that.”
Special teams was particularly interesting inside the indoor facility. The Bulldogs were unable to punt the ball live because of the height of the building’s ceiling. So, instead, Smart threw the ball to returners on punts. But all other kicking situations were conducted live.
“It was awesome; it was great,” Smart said. “I thought it was well-organized. I thought it was the best [special teams] scrimmage we’ve ever had. Most of the time it’s chaos. Where’s this guy, where’s that guy? We were really efficient with our G.A.’s getting guys on and off the field. We did kickoff and kickoff return just like we’re on the field or in the stadium. We didn’t do anything different. We did PAT/field goals just like we’re in the stadium. The only difference was on punts.”
Smart said the only concerns were the same ones they have had all spring: defensive line and secondary.
The defensive front is without two regulars, who are out with injuries. Justin Young joined Michael Barnett in the training room with a “minor” knee sprain. That has left the Bulldogs with only nine players to rotate through four positions.
The problems in the defensive backfield have less to do with numbers or depth. Georgia has several second-year players, such as Tray Bishop, Ameer Speed and Eric Stokes, who Smart had hoped and expected to assert themselves in the absence of the Bulldogs’ graduated veterans. Instead, they continue to struggle with the challenges of the position.
“Some of the guys at that position, I don’t think they’re challenging themselves mentally with learning the playbook,” Smart said, obviously aggravated by the situation. “It’s their time, and they have to step up or they’ll be replaced by the people coming in. … We’re not playing really well at those positions. And I would understand it if these guys were on scout team last year and didn’t get reps, but because of our depth issues, most of [the] guys were our backups and didn’t have to play last year but took reps. We’re not where we need to be.”
But, overall, it was evident that Smart and his staff saw much more about which to be positive. He praised the play of quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Justin Fields and the work of the running backs, led by junior Elijah Holyfield. Sophomore D’Andre Swift is somewhat limited with a groin injury.
“We were able to have a really good, upbeat scrimmage,” Smart said. “I regret not getting the elements from the scrimmage, the hot, the cold. … That part, not having heat or not having humidity, it made it a little bit easier, to be honest with you. But it was upbeat, good popping, good hitting, good competition, especially on special teams and on offense and defense. I thought it was really competitive.”