Georgia players’ belief in controversial Kirby Smart call illustrates championship level buy in
ATHENS — It was fourth-and-11 with the ball at the 50-yard line, the SEC Championship Game tied at 28-28.
Backup quarterback Justin Fields ran on the field as an up-back in the punt formation, and the Alabama players start pointing and talking, sounding the alarm that a fake was imminent.
The Georgia players didn’t care; they believed in their head coach, and they believed the play was going to work.
As important as anything that happens in spring drills, offseason workouts or fall practice, the key to another Bulldogs title run will be the players continued belief in Kirby Smart and his staff.
The Georgia fans might question the fake punt call, and opposing fans are sure to continue to ridicule it.
But the Bulldogs suited up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last December believed in it then, and they believe in it now.
“We’d been practicing that play for two years; it was designed for Alabama’s punt safe,” former UGA long snapper Nick Moore said. “Nobody had ever seen that formation, we hadn’t remotely lined up in positions like that, ever.
“Our coaches are smart people, they do countless hours of film watching and game prep,” Moore continued. “Once we decided we were going to run the fake, and Justin ran on the field, we were just hoping they wouldn’t realize who was eligible (receivers) vs. who wasn’t eligible.”
It was Fields’ moment to make the sort of game-changing play that Georgia fans envisioned when the Bulldogs signed the 5-star.
But Alabama’s defense scrambled and handled the moment like a team that knew how to handle pressure situations — and Fields scrambled like a player that did not — and Georgia was on the wrong side of a historic football moment when Fields’ came up 9 yards short.
Smart, to his credit, explained what happened matter-of-factly in defeat, without drama nor remorse. A football play that didn’t work, thats what it was.
“Thought it was there, and it was there today,” Smart said. “We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, that they recognized it and got the guy covered late.
“It was probably 20, 30 yards (of) field position that — we came to win the game. We wanted to win the game.”
Indeed, Georgia brought an all-out mentality into the game, the players aware the fake was going to be called if at all possible.
That attack mentality helped the Bulldogs build a 28-14 lead before dominant Georgia edge rusher D’Andre Walker was lost for the game with an injury, and Alabama QB Jalen Hurts came off the bench to spark the Tide.
“Coach was trying to win the game, he didn’t want to tie the game, he didn’t want to go into overtime, he was playing to win,” Walker said, “and he felt that was the best call to put us in a situation to win, so he’s the head coach, and it is what it is.”
No regrets, no resent.
It was the same tone from Jayson Stanley, another departing senior with the license to say whatever he truly felt about the failed play.
“We could have made that play, we had a lot of preparation, but it didn’t go as planned,” Stanley said. “I was split out, my job was to run a slant, but by the time I looked over, the Alabama defense was in the backfield.
“We’d gone through that play (with Fields) in our special teams practice every day. We worked on it.”
Smart sells his players on the importance of winning special teams, and part of that equation, is making sure those same players know he’ll turn to them to execute.
“It keeps you on top of your game, knowing you have to practice and hone in on it every day,” Stanley said, “because you ever know when we might run a fake.”
Georgia very nearly ran a fake punt against Alabama in the national championship game in January of 2018, it turns out.
That situation was a fourth-and-6 at the Tide 39-yard line, the Bulldogs up 20-10.
“Brice Ramsey had the option to throw it or punt it, and he punted it,” Moore said. “I was the receiver, I was covered up, they had like four guys on me, they were in punt safe. That play wasn’t designed for punt safe.”
But the Fields’ fake punt was designed to work with Alabama in punt safe.
“Justin did the best he could — there’s a lot of responsibility for a young guy,” Moore said. “I went back and watched it 1,000 times, Alabama played it perfectly.
“We know Kirby is a competitor, like all of us, he’s not going to shy away from the moment.”
Elijah Holyfield confirmed, it’s what makes Smart special, and it’s why his players believe in him even while some fans can’t understand how having the fake punt in the game package helped the Bulldogs’ confidence and mentality.
“I support Coach Smart’s call,” Holyfield said. “He makes the best calls.”