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Smart, Bulldogs preview Rose Bowl

UGA Football
Photo: Steven Colquitt/UGA

ATHENS, Ga. — University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Oklahoma with media on Monday. The Bulldogs take on the Sooners at 5:10 p.m. ET New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif.

Smart and the Bulldogs offered the following comments on Monday.

Head Coach Kirby Smart 

Opening comments … 

“Excited to be here. I’m really proud I got to take a picture with our nine graduates the other day, and really excited about those guys. I think we’re going to end up with 16 guys total with their degree out in Pasadena, which I’m really proud of the young men who have already graduated, but also the ones who just did, and they continue to do a great job academically in a really competitive environment and university.

As far as practices go, today will be our fourth practice. We’re having another camp-type practice, preparing for the Rose Bowl, preparing for a really, really good Oklahoma team. We focused on ourselves the first five practices. We planned to do camp-type practices, and really improve our roster and try to work on our team from a development standpoint, getting ones, twos, threes, every guy on our team reps. So we’ve been really excited about the work we’ve gotten and that will continue into today’s practice.

Couple injuries of note, John Atkins is still battling a little bit with the big toe he got in the SEC Championship game. He’s been able to practice, but he’s had to push through and be limited in his reps. Sony has done a good job pushing through. Malkom Parrish continues to work on his situation, and he’s not been able to practice a lot. He’s been able to practice some. So those guys are bouncing back.

As I’m sure most of you guys are aware, and everybody wants to know and talk about Natrez and Jayson Stanley situation. Under university and athletic association policies, both those guys remain part of the team and eligible to practice. As we always talk about disciplinary matters, they’re handled internally. So we make disciplinary decisions based on our policies, and the September revisions to the substance abuse policy had no impact whatsoever on the situation.

So we’re following our policies without any exceptions, and without regard to the players involved or where we are in the season. The Athens-Clarke County situation with Natrez is a separate matter and we’ll address it according to our policies once it’s resolved. So with that, I’ll open it up to questions.”

On having the early signing period in the middle of bowl prep …

“Yeah, it’s been a great challenge. I don’t think people anticipated — at least I didn’t anticipate some of the  repercussions . First off, trying to play for a National Championship, and I know there are four teams involved in that. You’ve got to look at it from both perspectives, from the perspective of us as coaches and then also the kids. I am all about if it benefits them then it’s for a better cause. I think there’s going to be 20 to 30% of the people who sign Wednesday that this is a beneficial process. But there are a lot of other kids that feel rushed. They feel like they’re making decisions amidst a sea of coaching changes, and they’re having to hurry up and make a decision and not really getting the chance to develop relationships with the people to the places they’re going. I think the public perception is you choose the school and you go to the school. You don’t necessarily go to a coach. And everybody can say that until it’s your son or your daughter, and you’re having to meet these coaches. You make decisions based on relationships.

The timeframe with which we’re having to make these decisions for the kids is really stressful on them. I think when you look at the coaching side, we could get used to it, but with the advent of the 10th coach in the same year as the early signing period, it makes it really complicated. Because now you have a lot of coaches that are going to be moving possibly after all the kids sign, and that’s a lot of the problem that people complained about before. The guys move after kids sign.

So it’s been a difficult process for certain. A little bit of that complicated by the fact that we played in the SEC Championship game and we lost a week of recruiting, and then signing day is basically upon us. It’s in two days, right? So it’s here. So it’s been very complicated. You’d like to look into it and see who did it actually benefit and how many did it benefit?”

On if outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer will coach in the bowl game … 

“Absolutely. Kevin, when he got the opportunity he got, which I’m really proud of him and his opportunity, first thing he said, he wanted to finish outright, and we want him to. So he’s done a tremendous job with our outside linebacker group, and he always has. It’s important for us to be at our best in this College Football Playoff. If it wasn’t important to have him, why would we have him here all year? So he’s been here. He’s helped these guys develop, helped the young players develop. I’ve got a lot of respect for Kevin and watched him go through the high school ranks. Watched him do it at Alabama. Watched him do it at South Alabama. So I’m excited for his opportunity. He did finish up at Tennessee on their official visit weekend, so he wasn’t here for a couple practices. But he’s here today, and he’ll be here the rest of the way through the bowl prep.”

On Nick Chubb being one of the top-10 players in the nation and if he has had that conversation with him … 

“I think running backs as a whole recognize that now. You look at the guys that are winning the Heisman, there are some backs in there. But those guys don’t get enough carries a lot of times. And the ones that do, they know it can affect their pro careers, just the longevity. So, no, I’ve never had that conversation with Nick, nor do I ever expect to have that conversation with a running back, because if they’re worried about that, then they’re probably not worried about us winning games. I like the running backs that are a lot more concerned with us winning football games, and we’ve got to do what’s best to win a football game. He’s got to carry it 35 times a game, so be it. He acknowledges that. He’s done that in his career here. But that’s not his role right now. He’s embraced his role, and best thing he does is lead by example, he and Sony.”

On how pleased he has been with Jake Fromm and Roquan Smith … 

“Tremendous job. Both those guys have grown up a lot throughout the year. Roquan took on a leadership role in the time in the spring when it was hard because he was injured. He’s embraced that. He’s had two or three really good practices. He looks fast out there. Really competitive, playing fast. Jake continues to grow and mature. There were times that we were on the road and he led to help the team do seven on sevens. He’s grown as a leader among the team. With each game in each situation he gets involved in, he tends to play better and understand the offense better. So they make the other players around them much better.”

On the concern for Natrez Patrick …

“Yeah, I think for us, which I’m not allowed to talk much about this subject because a lot of it is confidential, and you’ve got to respect his confidentiality. I have a lot of respect for Natrez as a person, a student, a student-athlete. He’s done a lot of good things along with his mistakes. I think for us and for me I can’t sit here and outline and define everything that’s happened because of his confidentiality and for the kid’s sake. So with that, there is not a lot I can talk about in that situation. It’s limited.”

On facing an odd front like Oklahoma’s … 

“I think it’s great, but it goes both ways. They get to see our odd front. They play against an odd front for a lot. For a long time odd front was different. Odd front was like the exception. And now the better teams, it seems like more and more, do both. We do both. You’ve got to do the one that fits your program the best. I think it presents challenges because they’re not exactly like us, but we have visited with Oklahoma in the past. We’ve shared ideas, so there are a lot of similarities. I think, if anything, that makes it a lot like fundamentals. Working on blocking and tackling and all of that. It’s not going to be a different scheme. It’s going to be a similar scheme from the standpoint of our defense and their defense, and they’ve got some talented rushers in that group.”

On the impact of the seniors who decided to come back this season … 

“Probably more than they have been given credit. I think every time I talk, people talk about those guys deciding to come back and what impact they had. I think the greatest impact it had was it gave the younger players, juniors, sophomores and freshmen, confidence in the regime. It showed them that, hey, man, these guys have only been with this staff one year, but they’re willing to stay. I think that gave a quiet confidence to the spring. Then I think the leadership of those, I don’t know, seven, eight seniors has been tremendous for the off-season workouts and setting the tone. But the value of experience, I mean, you could have a freshman that’s better than the senior, but the senior plays better in the big moments because he’s got poise. He’s got an understanding of it. You think of Davin’s played against Notre Dame, played against Auburn who were both kind of momentum-changing plays. I don’t think you can put a number of wins on that. So I think it played a major factor for us.”

On freshman defensive back Latavious Brini … 

“Yeah, he’s still in court right now. Still going through the process and the decision-making process. As we get more information we’ll let you guys know. We just don’t know a whole lot.”

On Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s ability to break out of pressure … 

“Yeah, he’s really elite. It goes up in that category beyond Johnny Manziel when it comes to creativity with the ball. He can make all the throws from all the angles. It’s not just the scrambling. It’s the fact that when you get to him, you sometimes still can’t get him down. He’s strong. He’s built lower body like a running back. It’s like having a wildcat quarterback that can throw it really good. His release and finding guys open has really been amazing. It creates a lot of dynamic for us. We’re very fortunate to have a quarterback like Stetson Bennett who I know a lot of you guys don’t know, he’s not the stature, but he’s done all year some plays similar to Baker. If we’re tackling him live, that would probably be different because he’s not as strong as Baker, but he does a great job of scrambling, adding time to plays. He can give us at least a good picture, not the real picture.”

On challenging his team to accomplish more after winning the SEC Championship … 

“Yeah, intensity. That’s probably why you hear my voice is hoarse right now, because I’m trying to make sure they understand that you can’t acknowledge the pats on the back. You can’t embrace that. You can’t feel good about yourself because obviously their hometown, their communities, in the media, winning the SEC Championship is a great honor and they’ll have that for a long time. It will be on these walls for a long time, but they can’t be satisfied. I think that is what makes the difference in the playoffs. How you approach this layoff and the perspective which you view it. So how are we managing that? We’re bringing speakers in, we’re using every resource we have to make sure they take advantage of this opportunity. We’re challenging them each day.”

On difference in styles of play between the Big-12 and SEC … 

“Well, I would agree with that, except I didn’t see any 10-6 SEC scores, because it doesn’t seem like they’re there anymore. I can go back maybe eight, nine years ago. But I thought you were going to say 28-24, 24-21, because people are scoring more and offenses have been innovative. They continue to progress. They take advantage of rules with the RPO and the different things they use.

Why is theirs different? I don’t know. It seems like in all the years I’ve been coaching bowl games, a lot of the games I’ve been involved in have been Big 12 games, been Big 12 match-ups, whether I was at Alabama or here. It’s a different style. I think they do a tremendous job of throwing the ball down the field, up-tempo, do a really good job of that. I don’t know if it’s the difference in the defensive lines. People have always said the SEC is going to have really competitive defensive linemen that can pass-rush and reduce that time window. But I think Baker Mayfield is the great equalizer because he extends that time, and he makes those plays go longer where you have to cover longer. That has a lot to do with it, and they’ve got really good skill receivers in that conference.”

On the importance of the kicking game and field position against Oklahoma … 

“Yeah, it’s the battle that nobody talks about. It’s the battle within the battle that we’ve worked really hard on improving that in the last three, four practices. We believe in working hard on special teams. Our core unit, those guys on every team, they love it because they see themselves as starters. It’s had a great impact on the games we’ve played this year, because I feel like we’ve been maybe not statistically, because I don’t even look and say, where are we statistically and this and that and that. We’ve done a good job on special teams because there’s been opportunities there. There’s been plays made there. There’s been momentum-changing plays, and we’ve got to continue to do that, and Oklahoma knows that. They’ve got really good special teams units as well.”

On meeting with the Oklahoma coaching staff … 

“I really don’t remember when we met with them. But they do a good job. We’ve always shared ideas with those guys. I’ve always liked to because I thought Bob Stoops did a great job defensively. And even when Brett Venables was there, we met with them when I was at Alabama. We shared ideas offensively uniquely because they had some really talented backs in their past. They’ve used those backs different ways. So as we’ve known we were going to have backs here, we said, how can we use our running backs in other ways? That was a big study for us two years ago when I got here and this year. So we’ve done some stuff with them.”

On the dangers of the Oklahoma running game … 

“That’s tough. They’re really big up front. People don’t talk about the size of their offensive linemen. They’re humongous, they lean on you, they wear you down, they go up-tempo, they go really good pace and they do run the ball. It’s not like it’s just a — it’s a great RPO offense. They do a tremendous job. He always has. I remember watching East Carolina, he really does a great job. You really do have to stop the run and they have great backs with which to do it.”

On balancing rushing the quarterback and keeping containment … 

“That’s the million dollar question. I don’t think you’re going to contain this guy. He can escape when he wants to escape. So you have to invite him to stay. He can make throws from the pocket or you have to flush him out and have somebody athletic enough to get him on the ground. The best thing they do is make explosive plays. So you look at them and they’ll go, three, three, three, three, bang, three, three bang, and get explosive plays. You’ve got to prevent the bang. You’ve got to prevent the big play from happening. Hopefully, you’ll get the turnover. You’ve got to stop them in the red area, get turnovers. You do have to affect him, and you’ve got to be smart because he’s seen it all. It’s not like this guy hasn’t seen a pressure that we might be running. You’re not going to reinvent something that he’s never seen before.”

On the importance of Roquan Smith against Oklahoma … 

“Yeah, he’s a tremendous asset for us because of his speed. But we can’t make this Roquan Smith against Baker Mayfield because that’s not the case. He’s not assigned to Baker. He’s assigned to a gap. He’s assigned to a coverage responsibility. He’s assigned to a running back, man-to-man. He has all kinds of assignments. It’s not as simple as people want to make it seem like. Hey, it’s Roquan against Baker Mayfield. That’s not what this is. Roquan has to play within our system, and he may end up in a match-up with him sometime. We’ve got other guys we spy with. We’ve got other guys that have to rush and contain the quarterback. He’s certainly going to be a key factor in getting our defensive line correctly. Which is the most important thing. It’s what we do, not necessarily what he does.”

On if he addresses Roquan Smith’s NFL future with him … 

“We handled it the same way we’ve always handled it. We call every kid in that we think has that potential. We talk to them about it. We say this is the process we’re going to follow. We’re going to get information, and gather information for you. We’re going to receive it from the NFL, and we’re going to give it to you. We’re going to be able to give you advice. But that’s not right now. Right now the focus is on Oklahoma, and that’s the concentration and that’s what we’re doing.

We make sure it doesn’t become a distraction because we know you guys are going to ask him. So we go to him and say, listen, be prepared for this. This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re handling it and we’ll follow the same exact steps we followed last year with our guys. Everybody gets the same information, everybody makes their own decision, and we’ll give you all the information you can to make the best decision possible. But let’s make sure the focus is on the team, and the focus is on Oklahoma.”

Senior OT #77 Isaiah Wynn 

On receiving individual awards…

“We don’t tend to focus on that too much. We are a firm believer in that it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have as much success as we’ve had this season. So I pay it all to the guys beside me that make me better, the guys across from me that make me better and running backs that make us look good.”

On the break in the last two weeks…

“I wouldn’t say laid back, but we have been able to work a lot on technique and fundamentals. We are definitely eager to get back.”

On preparing for a game in the College Football Playoff opposed to a regular bowl game…

“It is the same way. We are taking the same preparation. We haven’t started looking at Oklahoma just yet, because we are focused on ourselves in fundamentals and technique. We are approaching it like a regular season game, but everyone knows that it is higher stakes.”

Senior OLB #7 Lorenzo Carter

On differences in preparation for the Rose Bowl…

“Not really. Coach (Kirby Smart) does a good job on keeping us locked in and focusing on getting better. A lot of teams get sloppy going into their bowl games, but he just wants us to make sure we are focused on ourselves and do what we need to do.”

On connection with Oklahoma lineman Orlando Brown…

“He is a big guy. Orlando went to my rival high school so I saw quite a bit of him. I’m looking forward to the competition and the chance to compete against him again. I haven’t had a chance to chat with him, but we keep up with each other through social media.”

On reality of the season…

“Reality has gone above and beyond. We have had a great season so far. We had a chance to play in one championship, but we aren’t done yet. I think everybody around here knows that we have more work to do.”

Graduate NT #97 John Atkins

On recovering from injuries…

“You can’t lay down. You can’t give up. Your work ethic doesn’t care how you feel so you have to come out and do it everyday.”

On significance of playing in the Rose Bowl…

“It is always great to play in any bowl game, because you earn the right to play in it. But the Rose Bowl is really big and a lot of Georgia teams haven’t been there. Knowing that, it makes it very special.”

On teammate Roquan Smith…

“He is a real humble. You will never see him brag. He is always work first, which is one thing I like about him. He will bounce back in any situation. He comes into work everyday, no matter what awards he has won.”

Junior ILB #3 Roquan Smith

On playing in the Rose Bowl…

“It’s pretty amazing, just knowing we have the opportunity to go out and play in the Rose Bowl. It’s a historic field where a lot of legends have played. So I think it will be a great challenge for us and the defense to play that type of offense.”

On stopping Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman winner Baker Mayfield…

“I definitely think it’s going to be a huge challenge stopping him, and they have a lot of other weapons on the offensive side of the ball, too. It will definitely be a huge challenge, but we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

On the reactions in his hometown of Montezuma, Georgia…

“Everyone’s very excited about the game, just knowing your hometown kid is going out and playing in the Rose Bowl out in California. Everyone’s looking forward, and cheering me on. I think it will definitely be great.”

On Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield off the field…

“He’s a phenomenal guy off the field, when I met him in Atlanta. First class guy. Takes everything light, and has a great personality. On the field, it speaks for itself what he does, he just won the Heisman, and he’s a good guy off the field as well.”

On the recognition Smith has received this season, including the Butkus Award…

“It’s amazing to say the least. Where I come from, from my first year here, with all my brothers and everything, with the help of them, how I’ve achieved so much, it’s just a pretty special feeling. And I can’t thank God enough, and our teammates, coaches, and family who have molded me into the guy I’m in today.”

Senior RB #1 Sony Michel

On returning for his senior season…

“It couldn’t have been any better. We put a great season together. This team is one of a kind, from the young players to the old players. It’s extremely special to me and these guys. It means a lot.”

On where the Georgia football program is headed…

“I think this is good for the program. This won’t necessarily dictate where this program is headed, but I think this program is headed in a good direction. I’m excited for them. Just to be in this position right now, I’m excited to be able to set the tone. I think this is our opportunity to set the tone for Georgia football.”

On preparation for Oklahoma…

Right now, we’re focusing on us and trying to get better. Trying to get some other guys in and playing and get them in their roles. These couple few days have been camp-like practices, so we haven’t really been focusing on Oklahoma right now. We don’t want to over-prepare for them. They’re a great team.”

On looking ahead…

“At the end of the day, we have to go out there and play our football. If we get caught up in Georgia offense, and what we did in the past, the past doesn’t dictate the present. We’ve got to go out there and perform.”

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