UGA’s Jim Chaney unflappable in face of enormous challenge
ATHENS – Speaking strictly from a media point of view – and let’s face it, I really have no option other than that — I wish Georgia would make Jim Chaney available every week. Say what you want about the Bulldogs’ football program at the moment, but if there is one thing it sorely needs more of it’s levity.
And yards and points.
Chaney can provide both of them. Take Saturday, for example.
Chaney was made available for a 20-minute question-and-answer session with reporters Saturday morning, several hours before the Bulldogs were to conduct Fans Day with an open practice at Sanford Stadium. This is the way it works in the Kirby Smart regime (and the way it worked when Smart was with Nick Saban at Alabama). That is, coordinators are available for interviews twice a season, once early in preseason camp and once before the bowl game. Otherwise, everything comes directly from the mouth of the head coach.
Enter Chaney, all 300-plus pounds of him. The Bulldogs’ portly play-caller has never shied away from his plus-size physique, and he enhances with an extra-large sense of humor.
“This is my favorite day,” Chaney told a room full of reports as he approached the dais. “This is when I find out if my game gear from last year still fits.”
This is what Chaney does. He disarms you. Like last year, when he came in and started talking about how much he likes pie and fly fishing.
This year it was about whether his game-day clothes from last season would still fit in this one.
“My britches did fit, by the way,” Chaney reported at the end of his news conference. “Slid right on!”
In between, though, Chaney’s tone was decidedly more serious. He knows full well that Georgia football supporters aren’t interested more jokes. They’re interested in more first downs and points from Chaney’s offense.
There wasn’t nearly enough of those last season. Last year, Georgia averaged just 24.5 points per game last season, which was 11th among SEC teams in 2016. What’s more though, it was even lower than the 26.3 points it averaged the year before under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
In fact, the 319 points the Bulldogs scored in 2016 was the fewest the school as tallied in the era of 12 or more games. Or, put another way, the lowest scoring season in modern history.
In a word, it was bad.
“I did a lot of soul-searching,” Chaney said of his reaction to that. “I had a lot of visitations with a lot of people about what to do.”
Here’s the thing: We all like to make football and offense in particular seem so complex. And it is in some ways it is.
But in others, it’s really not. The bottom line is you have to be able to run the football in short-yardage situations and you have to be able to read defenses and protect to throw it. Yes, the terminology and the signals can be complicated, but nothing that can’t be easily mastered through repetition.
The rest of it comes down to personnel. And Chaney, in coming to Georgia from Pittsburgh to become Smart’s first offensive coordinator, inherited one of the worst situations one in his business could encounter in that regard.
First of all, he had a true freshman as his starting quarterback. That’s difficult enough as it is. But then you put the “Bambi-ish” (Chaney’s words) Jacob Eason behind a substandard offensive line, and it was a recipe for disaster. The real miracle might be that Georgia’s offense wasn’t worse than it was.
Fast forward to the present and things should be better with Eason just from natural progression. But then there is reason to believe that the Bulldogs’ offensive front could be even worse, what with having to replace three starters and breaking in new starters at all five positions. Meanwhile, Georgia’s still trying to figure out how to replace its leading receiver in a slotback Isaiah McKenzie. And Chaney is having to resolve the need to get the football in the hands of two NFL-caliber tailbacks with a quarterback that operates better out of the shotgun.
“It’s been challenging, no question,” said Chaney, who has been an offensive coach for 32 years and a coordinator for 20. “Anytime you’re playing a young quarterback that’s always challenging. You’re trying to figure out what he can and can’t do as early as you possibly can. We’re a lot closer on that I think Jacob’s done a good job and we know one another a lot better now.”
To borrow a well-worn phrase, this ain’t Chaney’s first rodeo. For sure, his has been an up-and-down career. He has directed wide-open, spread-out offenses at Purdue and Tennessee and he has led run-oriented squads at Arkansas and Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, here, the goal is to achieve balance. He actually did that to a high degree just a few years ago at Arkansas, producing two 1,000-yard rushers and a 2,000-yard passer. With the triumvirate of Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, that would go over well for the Bulldogs this year.
Smart, for one, still believes Chaney can get the job done.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for the work Jim’s done,” he said. “I think if you look at his career as a whole and you look at the places he’s been and the job he’s done, you’ll see that he’s been in some interesting situations. Arkansas, heavy run, to Tennessee, where one year we couldn’t stop them from throwing it because they had a guy who could throw it and some very good wideouts. So he’s been very versatile in his past.
“He was not able to do that last year. We weren’t in position to be that. It’s not who we were. We were in transition. It was tough. I think he’d be the first to admit we didn’t live up to the expectations we (had) last year. That’s not what we expect at Georgia. He recognizes that and we acknowledge it.”
Indeed, Chaney recognizes it. You don’t get into a fourth decade in this business without having some savvy with regard to pleasing your bosses and doing what it takes to survive. In year two of a three-year deal with Georgia, he needs to get the Bulldogs on the move this year or likely move on himself.
“He’s the one who writes the checks,” Chaney said of Smart. “To rate it as more difficult than other jobs, I don’t know that’s necessarily true. You go to work and you try to do as good a job as you possibly can. You try to put the pieces of the puzzle together and score enough points to win. Ultimately that’s my job, to work within Kirby’s philosophy to score enough points to find victory.”