Coming off an SEC championship and a run to the National Championship Game, Georgia opened spring practice Tuesday, with the G-Day Game set for April 21.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart spoke before the opening of practice Tuesday. Here’s what he had to say about spring practice.
Opening comments: “I’m excited to get started this spring practice. I’ve been saying a long time ago, change is inevitable, but growth is optional, and I think that’s a great mantra for this team. Everybody wants to talk about the guys that left, and I’m certainly excited about those guys getting their last chance to showcase [Wednesday] at our pro day. But, you know, you don’t replace a Roquan Smith. You don’t replace a Nick Chubb, a Sony Michel. You don’t replace any of those guys, 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. I think every time you change one player, 10 players, 25 players on a team, the team changes. There’s a lot of questions about this team, and that’s what I’m excited about. The challenge of finding the personalities on this team that will lead the right way. The personalities on this team that will challenge the other guys. A lot of that has already started in the offseason program, guys challenging each other, pushing each other, and we’re not going to get where we want to go if we don’t have great leadership. I can promise you that. And that’s the biggest question about this team is who are going to be the leaders? Who are going to be the guys that demand a lot of each other? It’s not talent alone. You don’t win the SEC. You don’t play in the Rose Bowl with talent alone. You’ve got to have great leadership, and that’s where we’ve got to really improve.
“We’ve had some guys add some weight. We’ve had some guys lose some weight. Probably more of them losing than the adding, and I’m excited to see where they are and let them go out and do some things without coaches standing over them. We’ve had the luxury of being able to walk through more this offseason than we’ve ever done. The new NCAA rules have allowed us to walk through. I think the last group that was here started and kind of created a new standard. Now it’s a matter of whether this new group can withhold that standard and hold people to the same level of excellence that we want to have.
“We’re excited, again, going into the spring. We’ll have a lot of position battles. I’m sure you guys have a thousand questions that you want to ask. But for me, there’s competition at every position. You know that. We talk about it all the time. Our kids in this room know that. There will be changes on the depth chart throughout. There will be tough competitions. What we’re trying to do is get every guy on our team to play better. It’s not about who we play next year. Right now we’re worried about us.
“Couple offseason injury notes. Just to mention both Sean Fogarty and Justin Shaffer will be out for spring with knee surgeries for the offseason. They’re fine, they’ll be back full go, but they will not be out there practicing for the spring.
“Obviously Zamir White having the ACL surgery, he will not be out there performing in the spring. He’s progressing very well. He’ll be able to do some things, walk through and moving around, but he won’t be in full-contact drills, and we’re excited about those guys getting back out there to help us. But they won’t be available for spring practice.
“With that, I’ll open it up for questions and let y’all lead it where you want to go.”
On changes to the coaching staff, including James Coley’s position as co-offensive coordinator: “Yeah, I think Coley’s done a tremendous job for us. As a coach he did a tremendous job of the receivers, very knowledgeable. He’s a guy that’s been a coordinator before. He’s worked with quarterbacks and had success working with quarterbacks in his history, and that’s something I thought that was a good move for our program. So he’ll be co-offensive coordinator. He’ll work with the quarterbacks. Cortez Hankton, who we hired, will be working with our receivers. Coach Chaney will continue to call the plays and he’ll be working with the tight end position. So none of that has really changed. For us, the ability to add the 10th coach and have Scott Fountain working with our special teams excites me. I thought Scott did a tremendous job last year working with our coaches and helping us in that regard and brought us some kind of momentum plays in special teams.
“So with that change, I think defensively the only change we have obviously is Coach [Dan] Lanning, which I’ve worked with him before. So there is less change there, little more change on the offensive side. But it’s more of an input, and everybody working together and pulling in the same direction.”
On the level of risk that moving coaches around creates and what he has seen from freshman quarterback Justin Fields …
“Yeah, level of risk, 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. I think you can always look at yourself and say how can I improve? I think we improved our staff tremendously by retaining one of our best recruiters and best coaches in James Coley while also bringing an unbelievable personality and great background in Cortez Hankton. He’s coached in our league, knows our league, has recruited in our league. All we want to do is make our staff better, and that’s the ultimate goal is to improve each year, and that’s what I think I’ve been able to do. So I’m excited about that.
“As far as Justin Fields, he’s done a tremendous job in the offseason workouts. He’s a competitor. He competes every day. He’s first in line trying to compete with every guy at his position. From a football standpoint we haven’t been able to see a whole lot because we haven’t been able to do a whole lot. But he’s a very bright kid, and I’m excited to go see him practice.”
On the status of offensive lineman Sam Madden and defensive end David Marshall: “David’s had a thumb injury he had surgery with, but he should be casted up and ready to go. As far as Sam goes, as far as I know right now, Sam’s still with the team.”
On the approach to this season compared to last year …
“The biggest thing is what I talked about in the beginning is that change is inevitable but growth is optional. So as much as I hate to say it, and don’t take it the wrong way, you guys make our job really hard as coaches by telling us how good we are and how good we should be. And 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. So they have to understand that we can improve in a lot of areas, and they have to have the almost maturity level to now deal with a different side of things, where everybody’s talking about what you should do this year. Well, if you don’t come with the same hunger, because we’ve learned two things. There’s a 2016 season and there is a 2017 season. 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? So what is going to be your motivating factor? And I think each team is very different. My concern for this team is not understanding that they’re going to be the target for everyone they play. We’re not going to sit back and let people hunt us. We’re going to continue to hunt. We’re an aggressive team. That’s what we want to be. We’re trying to grow as a team and get better. I think they’ll embrace that challenge. We’ve got some good leaders on this team. They’ve just got to learn to step up and be vocal.”
On keeping the hunger and how Fields pushes sophomore QB Jake Fromm: “I think everybody can improve. I think the fact that Justin and Jake are competing is no different than every guy on our team. We’ve got about four or five spots in the secondary that are wide open for 12 guys. So why should that be different? We’ve got guards and centers that are all competing, tackles. So none of that ever changes. That’s what this program is built on. It’s built on you go out every day to perform to the best of your ability. And if I don’t think or the staff doesn’t think you’re performing to the best of your ability, then we call you out, we call you in and tell you you’ve got to do better. I think every kid has kind of embraced that. Through the leaders we had last year, they understood if I don’t perform there is another guy behind me that’s going to push me. That’s what we want. We want it to be that way.”
On who has stepped up to be a leader …
“The most common thing would be to say okay, what seniors, what guys played last year? I think Lamont (Gaillard) has done a good job. I think he’s got to continue to do that. Terry has been a very quiet, lead by example, works hard every day. I mean, the guy’s a hard worker and people follow him. I think offensively we’ve got more guys in those roles than maybe defensively. I think Ledbetter has done a good job stepping up, encouraging guys, being positive, and giving positive reinforcement. D’Andre Walker is trying to take on more of that role. But that’s where we’re at now. It’s time to go out on the field and find out where adversity is, if you have pads on, and you have a helmet on and you’re tired, and it’s not just an off-season conditioning program, how are you going to respond and help the other guys around you? We need as much of that as we can get.”
On status of senior ILB Natrez Patrick and sophomore DB Deangelo Gibbs: “Natrez came back from The National Championship Game. He’s been able to join us. He’s done everything we’ve asked, and he’s working hard on and off the field. I’m very pleased with his ability to come back and overcome some hurdles in his life. Then DeAngelo Gibbs had left shoulder surgery, and had to address an injury that was there. He’s doing very well with rehab, and we anticipate a full return for him in the fall. But, again, excited about both those guys.”
On senior DE Jonathan Ledbetter and how he has grown: “With skillset I don’t get to see quite as much. His work ethic I’ve seen grow. I think he’s gotten stronger in the weight room. I thought Coach Sinclair and his staff, the weight staff we have has done an outstanding job getting our team bigger, stronger, faster. When you look at the strength gains which are sometimes hard to measure, and everybody can say they bench more, they squat more, they power clean more. He does a really good job of harnessing that and not putting him at risk of injury through single rep maxes. He does a really good job protecting us there. But Ledbetter has gone up in that regard. We had some guys we thought needed to gain some weight and they did, and we had a lot of guys that we thought could lose some weight and they’ve done that as well. But Ledbetter is one of those guys that pushes the limit, he pushes himself hard, and I’ve been pleased with where he’s at.”
On where Ledbetter is in his life right now: “I feel like he’s in a good place. He’s become a vocal leader on our team. He’s a guy that when he speaks, people listen. They listen to people who have had hard times and fell on hard times. He can speak on an experience that not all of our players can speak on. So he’s been through some really tough times. He’s certainly changed the narrative on his story to this point. I think how this season goes and how finishing up his bulldog career goes will speak volumes to who he is as a person. He could have a great impact on this team because of his leadership role and because of some of the trials and tribulations he’s been through. He can speak on it and speak through experience.”
On his reasoning for wanting to turn down the hype or expectations: “I think that team is that team. We’ve kind of absorbed that and embraced that and to start with your first statement, I don’t think that I can put down those expectations. The expectations are what they are at the University of Georgia. The expectation is to win every game you play. Why should it be any different?
“We want to create a brand that we are expecting to go out and dominate our opponent. That’s what we thrive to do. That’s why we go lift weights. That’s why we go and run. We want to dominate every opponent. That’s our goal. Go out and dominate our opponent. It’s not about what you guys [the media] think, what the fans think. It’s not about any of that. It’s about what we can do to make sure our players are playing at the highest level every week, week in and week out. That’s our ultimate goal.
“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. I’m worried about who is going to be the leaders? What are going to be the traits? Are we going to be better at getting turnovers? Are we going to be more explosive? How are we going to change offensively? Where are we going to evolve to? Those are things we need to see so we can find out where we’re going.
“But we’re not patting ourselves on the back like a lot of our players are getting in the public.”
On the value of having Cade Mays here this spring to compete at left tackle, and who the others are competing for that spot: “Well, it’s valuable to have every one of those guys. Don’t you think it’s valuable to have Justin Fields here and competing and Divaad Wilson? I mean, we lost something like 10 DBs. They played forever, so now we have a guy to come in and compete. Trey Hill, I’m excited to see him compete. Warren Ericson, there is a guy that’s going to come in here. Kearis Jackson, I mean, every one of those guys I’m excited to have.
“Zamir White, can he learn and get blitz pick-ups? Can he grow as a player without actually practicing? So I’m super excited about every one of those. There is a competition at every single position out there. I’ve not singled out a position like you guys [the media] like to do and say well, they lost these outside backers, and we’re going to have this great outside backer battle. We’re going to have a battle at every single position, and that’s called recruiting. It’s called depth.
“I’d love nothing more than to see Warren Ericson and Trey Hill pushing Lamont Gaillard, because y’all have already given Lamont a starting job. Every article I read, Lamont’s going to start because he started last year. Kendall Baker, he has his spot. They go out there thinking that, and I would be disappointed in them, because I think if you ask them they understand I better be one of the best five or I won’t be starting.”
On losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and the excitement of seeing D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield get some spring work at that spot: “Well, the great thing is we got to see two of those guys get a ton of work last year in the spring. Where you guys might not have gotten to see them get a ton of work because you saw the two studs out there carrying it all the time, we got to see a lot of that.
“So we get to see D’Andre jump into that battle, that fray, with those two. We get to find out about who is going to be the competitor on special teams. Who can replace 127 snaps Sony took on special teams? Because right now none of those three have stepped up to the plate to say, ‘I can be as valuable at special teams as Sony was.’
“Nick Chubb took every single rep last spring in special teams in two different phases. We didn’t use him in the season because we didn’t have to. Who of those three is going to say, ‘I can lead this spot, I can contribute on special teams, I can do every pick up right, I can protect the ball right, and I can go out and affect the rest of the team by the energy and attitude I practice with.’ That’s what I want to see.
“I want to see which one’s going to go to class the most, which one’s going to have the highest GPA. There is a great battle there, and we can use all three of them. Hopefully we’ll get to use Zamir and James Cook as well when they’re healthy and they can go.”
On maintaining an on-the-hunt mindset this year: “I’m not ever trying to get the target on my back. I don’t think that’s the right approach. Mentality-wise we don’t say, ‘Let’s go get the target on our back.’ We’re target practice. Same thing I told you at South Carolina. Why in the hell would you on-side kick against South Carolina? We’re doing aggressive things that we think are right. So we’re doing the same thing right now we did last year.
“Every coach on our staff did quality control of what we did well, what we did poorly. What can we improve on? We sat in here yesterday with 130 players, and we said last year on the composite special teams rankings we were dead last. So our goal in the spring was to move. Fall camp, move. Perform on the field. We moved, depending on how you look at it.
“So now are we not going to talk about special teams anymore? No. We’re trying to move up nationally. We’re trying to move up. We’re continuing to hunt because that’s what we believe.
“When you play aggressive, you watch all those basketball tournaments, 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. So we’ll continue to do that in how we practice, because the offense is going to go against the defense. … The left receiver’s going to go against the right cornerback, and we’re going to be aggressive. We’re not going to go out there and sit back and say what is somebody else doing? We’re worried about us.”
On what point Zamir White might be able to get on the field in fall camp: “That’s hard for me to answer because I’m not a doctor. I don’t know. He certainly looks good right now. He’s progressing along. He’s maybe ahead of where we expected him to be. But to say he’s going to be there fall camp, ready to go, I don’t know that.You guys are going to see him out there. He’ll probably be doing some individual trials, and you make your own assessment. Because that’s the challenge for us is not knowing where he’s going to be, with the help of our three current backs coming out of spring practice.”