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Perry McIntyre / UGA Sports
Georgia quarterback JT Daniels is improving his pocket awareness, per head coach Kirby Smart.

Kirby Smart: ‘Verdict still out’ on how pivotal JT Daniels’ 400-yard game was for offense

ATHENS —  Georgia coach Kirby Smart is not one to jump to conclusions, especially when it comes to making too much out of one passing performance.

USC transfer quarterback JT Daniels debuted for the Bulldogs with 401 yards and four touchdown throws on 28-of-38 passing against Mississippi Sate last Saturday.

Smart said it’s too soon to classify the performance as a pivotal moment for the offense, which hadn’t had a 400-yard passing performance since SEC all-time yardage leader Aaron Murray in 2013.

“I think the verdict is  still out on that,” Smart said on his Tuesday night Zoom call with reporters. “The sample size we have is small.”

WATCH: Hilarious take on Georgia fans responded to Daniels’ big night

Smart said the coaches have seen Daniels work with the starters the last 2 1/2 weeks, and they are seeing improvement.

“I have seen him make some good plays, I have seen him make some good decisions, (and) he had some really good plays today,” said Smart, whose team plays at South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. “The biggest improvement that he has made is in the pocket-awareness, and that’s where his best decisions have to come.

“As far as (offensive) transformation or anything like that, I don’t know. We have to find ways to run the ball, and that’s probably the most important thing to me so we can be explosive in both ways.”

RELATED: DawgNation exclusive, JT Daniels says no second-guessing

Smart explained that Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis could just as easily have connected on big plays like Daniels did against Mississippi State, when he completed four passes of 40 or more yards after the team had three completions of more than 40 yards in the first six games combined.

“Like I told you, I’d seen it in so many practices,” Smart said. “You guys have asked if we have confidence throwing it, and yeah. I’ve seen those same plays. I’d seen Stetson [Bennett] and D’wan [Mathis] make some of those plays against us in practice, so I knew it was there.”

Smart said the return of George Pickens, Mississippi State’s style of defense and the growth of Jermaine Burton  were other factors that led to the aerial explosion. 

Number one, (Mississippi State) is a risk-reward defense, and their strength is in their front and in their linebackers, not really in their secondary,” Smart said.

“JT [Daniels] made some really good throws, we won some 50/50 balls, we got some PIs (pass interference penalties), and we got a hard-count free play,” Smart said. “I mean, a lot of those things you saw, you’ve seen all year.”

The difference was, Smart said, is that the Bulldogs didn’t connect on those plays before.

RELATED: JT Daniels gets the first A+ grade of the season

The unspoken words from the head coach is that it took JT Daniels to take advantage of those situations and make the plays.

“So I think a combination of who we played, how we played, George being in the game,” Smart said. “Jermaine’s progression …. . there are just all these things, and JT [Daniels] was a beneficiary of some of that growth, so he got the good end where Jermaine is at his best, and his best is still ahead.”

Smart explained that the Bulldogs will continue to focus on the run game because it’s ultimately needed to protect the quarterback.

RELATED: Everything JT Daniels said after his debut performance in 31-24 win over MSU

“I felt a little bit bullheaded the other night— not me, since I wasn’t calling the plays— as far as trying to run into some of the looks,” said Smart, whose offense was led by Zamir White’s 21 yards on 11 carries. “We’re committed to running the ball, because if you don’t attempt to run the ball, you’ll really have trouble protecting the passer.

“So, the threat of the run keeps guys from pinning their ears back and just rushing the passer, but the goal would be to take advantage of what the opposing team gives us,” Smart said.

“And if they want to load up and stop the run, then we need to be able to have intermediate and explosive passing game. If they’re going to defend that, then you’ve got to be able to block people and get the ball through the inside up the middle and outside the run game.”

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