With talent in abundance, it’s leadership that Georgia’s Kirby Smart seeks
ATHENS — I imagine everybody gets tired of all the leadership talk when it comes to the Georgia Bulldogs, or football in general. I know I do. I don’t know how many times the word “leadership” or “leaders” or some derivative of the root word “lead” was uttered during SEC Media Days in Atlanta last week, but I’d guess it came in second only to “football.”
The fact is, leadership is a big part of the game. Football is fun to play on Saturdays in the fall, but it’s hard the rest of the time and almost always hurts. That’s why it’s so important that teams develop in-the-locker-room leadership that reinforces what the coaches are always screaming about.
That’s unquestionably the biggest unknown about Georgia’s 2018 squad. The defending SEC champion Bulldogs are getting ready open preseason camp late next week, and probably anybody who frequents DawgNation can tell you the positions and production that needs to be replaced. There’s the 8,000-plus rushing yards of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the sideline-to-sideline tackles of Roquan Smith, the 40-plus games played by Dominick Sanders. All that is significant.
But if I know anything about what I’ve witnessed since Kirby Smart slid into town in December of 2015 it’s that the man is bringing some high-caliber football players to Athens. The Bulldogs’ three recruiting classes of his crafting have carried national rankings of 6, 3 and 1, respectively. But you don’t even have to know that and you’d be able to tell when this group gets off the bus.
I read somewhere the other day that Georgia’s roster includes 18 former 5-star prospects. I haven’t had a chance to independently verify that stat, but it sounds about right. A third of them came in this last class, I believe. So talent is being replenished, which is required of the cyclical college game.
And that’s great. But high pedigree in and of itself does not a great team make. As Smart pointed out several times as the Bulldogs were on that magic carpet ride last season, leadership played a major role in Georgia achieving a conference championship and national title game berth. After all, the team makeup last year was largely the same as it was the previous year, when the Bulldogs went 8-5.
“We didn’t change a whole lot, but we definitely demanded more,” Smart reiterated at Media Days last week. “When you do that, you’ve got to have a group of players who can embrace that.”
Whether Georgia has that now is unclear. Frankly, it was unclear this time last year.
Certainly there was the tangible evidence that the “Big Four” of Chubb, Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy had foregone the opportunity to turn pro in order to come back and take another crack at this SEC football thing. But those guys were just the tip of the spear, so to speak — the number of lettermen lost from the 2017 squad stands at 37 — and how truly dynamic they were as a group didn’t become evident for a while.
It follows that it’ll be a minute before we know what Georgia has on that front this season. Our first evidence of those being tabbed as replacements came with the Bulldogs’ student-athlete representation at Media Days. Georgia sent seniors Terry Godwin, Jonathan Ledbetter and J.R. Reed to serve as the faces and voices of the 2018 team, and they comported themselves well in that role.
Each had a different route to their places on the podium there at the College Football Hall of Fame. There was Godwin, the former 5-star who is entering his fourth season as a starter at wide receiver. There was Ledbetter, who has overcome all sorts of self-erected obstacles to make himself into a consistent force on the D-line everybody envisioned in high school. And, finally, there was safety J.R. Reed, an overlooked and misevaluated 2-star recruit who transferred in via Tulsa as a supposed throw-in for luring his highly-touted cousin to UGA. Now he leads both with his words and his actions.
“It means the world to me that Coach Smart believes in me like that,” Reed said as he was surrounded by a throng of reporters and television cameras. “Since I got here, he’s coached me very hard. I’ve always dream about being able to represent my team like this.”
Tabbed as such, Reed and his colleagues on the leadership committee have a tough job ahead of them. Not only is there a more-than-minor makeover taking place on both sides of the ball, the sensibilities of these young pups who have been recruited here to fill these big voids are largely unknown. It wouldn’t be the first time if some of these former blue-chippers came in feeling a little entitled or maybe had a less-than-stellar attitude when asked to play special teams or a back-up position rather than assume a starring role as he’s always been accustomed.
Coaches can yell until they’re blue in the face and not have the level of sway of a teammate who has been there and done that and now has a position of prominence on the team.
“It’s important for us to have positive leadership,” Smart said. “They can’t get jealous of each over.”
Smart pointed to the running back position and the relationship of Chubb and Michel and how they managed to co-exist and flourish in careers that kept them in constant competition both with each other and the ballyhooed signee that came in wanting their job every year. Now it’s D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien who will be helping get Zamir White and James Cook ready to play, while also preparing themselves for bigger roles.
“It’s important to think back how would Nick have handled it, how would Sony have handled it, and use that to develop leadership for themselves,” Smart said. “I have seen enough to know they have ability.”
Georgia’s new leaders have heard this sermon before, and they’ll be hearing it more once camp gets off and running in the August heat. They can recite it, chapter and verse.
But these roles don’t come naturally to everybody. Quarterback Jake Fromm unquestionably has all the traits, but he’s just a sophomore, as is Swift. Whoever starts at any of the linebacker positions will be a new starter.
Godwin talked about being quiet by nature and preferring to lead with his actions on the field. He knows that’s not going to cut it as a senior.
“This year I’m working on speaking to the younger guys and trying to be that vocal leader,” Godwin said. “I’m trying to get better at the vocal part and get those young receivers to come on. They’re looking up to us older guys because they saw what we did last year. We’re trying to get them to improve as well. So I’m trying to give them everything I know. …
“We have to get the younger guys bought in on what Coach Smart wants with the team. We want to instill in them what the leaders last year instilled in us.”
That there is a desire to lead is a start. We’ll soon find out if a young and talented team is willing to follow.