Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview Sugar Bowl
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Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview Sugar Bowl

Kirby Smart
Photo: Kristin M. Bradshaw/UGA

ATHENS, Ga. — University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed the upcoming Sugar Bowl game against Texas with media on Monday. They offered the following comments.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening comments…

“We’re excited for the opportunity. We’re looking forward to this Sugar Bowl opportunity, and I know our players are certainly excited. We’ve already had two practices, and we’ll get at least four or five more in before we break for Christmas.

“This is the time of year where you actually get to develop the youth on your roster. We get to practice a lot of the younger guys who haven’t gotten a chance to play and develop or maybe only some chances to play. They really get to grow and get better. I’ve always thought that bowl practice is where guys start to show the biggest increase. I think back to Roquan (Smith)’s game against TCU and what he was able to do to kick off his junior season, he did some really good things in that game. We’re selling it to our program that you’ve got an opportunity to play on a national stage, a New Year’s 6 game, and we’re excited for that.

“We do have four early enrollees that are out there practicing with us. Clay Webb, DJ Daniel and Tramel Walthour are with us, being able to practice, and those guys have had to go through an acclimation period, and then Jermaine (Johnson) should be joining us today, but they all have to go through acclimation period. So there may be some things they can and can’t do. But we’re excited to have those guys. I think be that’s a great benefit for kids to come in and get that practice, although they can’t travel to the bowl game with us.”

On replacing Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator…

“No timetable on replacement. We’ll have a ton of interest, obviously, with an opportunity to come in and be at a place with good players like the University of Georgia. I’ll be working with the secondary during bowl practices. Also our graduate assistant, Bacarri (Rambo) will be working with us, and Glenn Schumann, Dan Lanning and Tray Scott will all share some of those duties going forward. We’ve always been really involved with the defense, so it’ll continue to be that way.”

On Tramel Walthour’s goals and development…

“Well, first was to get bigger, stronger, faster, and go play, and get an opportunity to improve, which we think he did. We got to follow him throughout the year, we stayed in communication with him. He did some really good things. He’s come back in really good shape, he’s got good size to him. Haven’t really been able to see anything in the two practices because he hasn’t been in pads. Today should be his first practice in pads, but we’re pleased with where he is.”

Update on injuries…

“D’Andre (Walker) had a groin injury late, I guess early in the fourth quarter, and he was unable to play moving forward. So he has had an injection to help him with his groin injury, and he’s currently out right now. He has not practiced, but we expect him to be back for the bowl game. He won’t be practicing today. He’s had this injury before, and he’s had the same treatment, and he’s returned in really good health. So we actually think he’s ahead of schedule. As far as Cade (Mays), he’s good to go. He’s cleared. He’ll be out there practicing. Same with Ben (Cleveland). Ben has been there for two practices. Ben is much better than he was, but he’s still working on getting back. Monty (Rice) has practiced the last two days, hit good GPS numbers. I wouldn’t say he’s 100 percent, but he’s much closer and being able to sustain and do some things at practice.”

On early enrollees getting to practice now…

“I thought it helped last year because what Cade (Mays) and Warren (Ericson) were able to do when they came in early. I still have the first memories of practicing for the playoff game and Cade Mays was out there at practice going full speed and really lighting up some defensive linemen and they were kind of like, ‘Wow, this guy’s talented. He’s not intimidated by the environment.’ And you certainly find out that really quickly.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet because we haven’t put pads on those (four new) guys, but I think it’s a good chance for them to even jump ahead of the midyears who will be out at spring practice. And these guys, they’re not intimidated by the environment. So many of these kids nowadays they grow up going to these showcases, these combines. They all go and compete against each other. So it helps them. It helps us from a depth standpoint because you’re usually dealing with more injuries at the end of the year, and you’re also dealing with the guys whether they decide to come out earlier. Your numbers go down. So in order to get extra numbers, it helps us at practice.”

On anyone deciding to skip the Sugar Bowl…

“We certainly support whatever decisions our players make, but none that I’m aware of. We don’t have anybody right now. I think it’s a tough situation. I think you can debate either side of it, but you have to look at it from each player’s perspective, and I think each player should be treated individually based on their body of work they’ve had at that location, at that college.

On underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft…

“I do not know of anyone right now. We have a lot of juniors in the information-gathering stage. I’ve been meeting with them. We’ve been gathering information. We have an advisory committee that we sent names off to, waiting on response on those. So this is kind of the meat of that time, and then when we get to the bowl location, they kind of put it away for awhile and then they revisit after the game. I think some of our guys may be close to making a decision, and they like to put it away before the game. But we sort of reserve the right for them to make that decision after the game. They’ve got all the way up to the junior declare date to do that.

“It is a very, very tough time talking to my colleagues in this profession, to deal with a signing date here, which we experienced for the first time last year, a junior declare date here, and then also having a signing date before we have all our grades and all our information back from this last semester. We don’t have that back yet to know who’s eligible, who’s not eligible, what losses you may have, the juniors coming out, even transfers. So when you add all that in, it’s really hard with the early signing date, and I think the early signing date was thought to be 50 percent or 60 percent. I don’t know how many guys signed early last year. I would guess it was 60, 70. I would say this year it’s going to be 90, 95. So initially the signing date is now in December with an option to sign later. But you’re making a decision before you know your entire roster, before you know grades, before you know about juniors, before you know about transfers. It’s really tough to manage that number. And we’re experiencing that right now as we are 48 hours away from signing date.”

On Georgia’s approach to bowl practices…

“I know from me being with the DBs the last two days and being around them, obviously there are guys who are getting increased roles. They are getting more reps there. I mean Divaad (Wilson) has been growing, coming along. He’s getting a lot of reps there. We’re working those young safeties. But the biggest thing about bowl practices, a lot of people think you’re going to go out there and go practice for Texas 15 times. We’re practicing on Georgia for like six or seven, and we’re practicing on Texas for six or seven. And you can’t just do Texas. Guys will be like tired of it. So you’ve got to do a really good job of structuring, making it fun, making it competitive and coaching your younger players, because this is where it may affect them in spring practice and fall camp to make our team better. And I think we’ve always done a really good job of using bowl practice to springboard these younger players into a better role.”

On signing day approaching on Wednesday…

“There’s an unknown of we don’t know who we’re getting outside the ones committed, right? So let’s say there’s 10 guys in that pool for four spots, five spots. I mean it’s just impossible to know. And it’s not fair for me to go to a junior who’s got an opportunity to come out for the draft because he wants to get his information. Some of them want to play in the bowl game and gather more information, because there’s certainly movement that could be made — like what Sony (Michel) and Nick (Chubb) were able to pull off in the two playoff games. I think it helped them tremendously in the draft. And had they been juniors when that happened, they don’t want to declare until after that.

“So it makes it hard to manage. I don’t think there was enough foresight by the coaches and by all the rules makers that this was all going to collide. But it is equal. So it’s not like anybody has a major competitive edge. It’s very complicated. It’s very complicated, and it causes for a lot of sleepless situations because you’re going, ‘What if this happens? What if this happens?’ Just your sheer numbers at each position you could end up very deficient at a position and then you have no chance to make it up, because you have no spots.”

On losing two analysts and calling the defense in the Sugar Bowl…

“I think it affects preparation more than the actual game. Obviously those guys helped a lot in preparation. I think the biggest adjustment will be Mel called it and Mel’s not here. So we’ve got guys with experience calling it, whether it’s a spring game or my 12 years or whatever it is experience calling it, so we’ve got a lot of experience and value there. We build a call sheet that Mel uses as a team defensive unit. He’s able to pull from that in a game. We make adjustments together during the game, so that’s not something that just one person does. And it wasn’t that way at Alabama when I was there. It was a team effort and it’ll continue to be that. So I think the biggest thing is making sure that the defensive backs get the attention they need because there’s certainly a lot of defensive backs on the field. You got four, five, six guys on the field at a time. So you’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough sets of eyes back there.”

On Georgia Tech’s new coach, Geoff Collins…

“I got a lot of respect for Geoff, first and foremost. I respect him and his family. And he does a tremendous job. He’s a bowling ball of energy. I mean if you hadn’t already noticed, he’s very much a go-getter in recruiting. He enjoys that part of it. He’s also a good football coach, and what he’s been able to do in his career, the places he’s gone, he’s shown that success. So I’ve got a lot of respect for Geoff.”

On non-playoff bowl games…

“It’s been a big topic of conversation for our staff, because what you find is where a traditionalist like myself and probably my age and older see bowl games, the Sugar Bowl in particular, a certain type way. And it’s kind of like talking to our players about Herschel Walker. They don’t have memories of that. They don’t know that. Shoot, our guys don’t remember Robert Edwards. You know, it’s just very different in a very delicate situation, because you have to make football meaningful and fun. To us, there is a ton meaningful about an opportunity to play another football game, to increase your legacy as a senior class, to be one of those three most winning senior class to ever come through here. There’s value in that. But sometimes to the senior class you have to be careful that they don’t see it like it’s punishment.

“No family ever sees that, but kids nowadays, they look at it as ‘What’s my next opportunity?‘ and we see guys are declaring for the draft, getting ready, not seeing the value in playing in them. I would have to draw on my personal experience that some of my best memories were Outback, Peach, the bowls we were able to play in. So as coaches our big thing is developing the roster, making sure the seniors are important and they understand. But they also have to recognize that this team has to get better and grow and that we highlight how many guys have gone out and played really well in these games and improved their draft stock.

“But at the end of the day it’s not always about just the draft stock. It’s about a memory. It’s about a legacy. It’s about winning the Sugar Bowl. It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself. And that’s what you have to promote is team goals, and these bowls give a ton of kids an opportunity to go somewhere they’ve never gone, to go to a children’s hospital and impact some kid’s life. The charitable organizations involved in these bowls are incredible. So it’s a fine line for whether benefit or requirement for some of these kids.”

On expanding the playoffs…

“That’s not really for me to decide. I’ve read Greg Sankey’s quotes. I’ve seen all the debates across the country. That’s not a big thing for me right now. Obviously you want to be in the four. It makes the season very meaningful. There can be all kinds of debate and talk. I’ll leave that to the coach at Washington, let him handle all that. The biggest thing for us is we know if you win the SEC, you’ve certainly got opportunities to go out and do things, and that’s the ultimate goal.”

On tight end Luke Ford…

“Luke is in Illinois. He’s home right now, and we’re expecting Luke to return right after Christmas and practice with us here and then go to the bowl game.

On adjusting the signing day dates…

“I don’t know that I have a perfect solution, because just as soon as I say what I’m about to say, there will be somebody that has an argument against that, as we all know. But I do think that the gap between the two signing days is too small, it’s actually only, what, a month and a half at the most, just six weeks. To be able to say that you would have an August signing date and they’re going to say, ‘Well, that’s just speeding it up more and you’re already complaining about that. That’s moving it up too early.’ A lot of the kids that we’ve had committed have been committed since August. And you wouldn’t have this dynamic of everything jumping on top of you. And you still don’t know who’s coming out. You look at the year they’re going to have, there’s a lot of question marks in that, and I don’t think we knew the ramifications when we moved it up of dealing with the juniors. The other argument is move the junior declare date up earlier because they have to decide before the bowl game whether they’re going to play or not anyway, and a lot of them aren’t. So make them declare and you have a more definitive number going into your early signing date. But there’s debates about both and there will be issues with both. The biggest thing is the whole process has been sped up to give these guys a chance to do official visits in the spring and that pushed us all probably too far forward.

On seniors going through bowl practice…

“There’s coaches across the country that have a couple of practices without their seniors. We haven’t done that. We include our seniors in everything, but we have had practices where they haven’t been involved on the back end, and it might be a deal that we go 60, 70 percent of practice and then those guys are able to leave. They’ve taken an abundance of reps in their years here, and we allow the younger guys to get more reps. But as we move forward, there will be less and less of that because they’ve got to prepare for the bowl. But I think every coach handles it in a different manner and every coach is in a different situation.”

——

#27 Eric Stokes| R-Fr. | CB

On motivation for the Sugar Bowl… 

“It is the next game, so we have to prepare like usual. We have to go out there and play the best ball that we can. Even though we aren’t playing for the playoffs, it is still the next game and we still want to win. We want to end on a good note. We want to give our seniors a ‘W’ and move on to the next year.”

On returning to practice… 

“We are just getting back to the fundamentals. We are doing basic things. I know for bowl games, people lose a little on techniques, so we are going back to the basics to make sure that doesn’t happen. It is fast, physical and everything that we build our team around.”

On things learned this season… 

“Playing the ball, turning for the ball and looking for the ball. It was a big factor coming in.”

On Kirby Smart coaching the defensive backs now that Mel Tucker has departed and how it changes the defense… 

“It is more intense, because it is the head coach so he demands more from you. Everything that we have done with him so far has been real intense. We always had Coach [Glenn] Schumann and Coach [Dan] Lanning there so it won’t be too different. Nothing really has changed, it’s just Coach Tucker isn’t here. Coach Tucker meant a lot to me though. He is the one that recruited me. Without him, I wouldn’t even be here. He played a big part in who I am.”

 #71 Andrew Thomas| So. | OL

On getting back to practice … 

“They’ve been good. We had two practices last week and everyone was flying around. We had good speed and hopefully we’ll pick back up with that today.”

On motivation for the Sugar Bowl… 

“Everyone on the team wants to win. We want to send our seniors out with a win, so we are working hard and buying in to the game despite not being in the playoff. We are almost looking at it as a first game for 2019 and want to start out in a good stride.”

On senior center Lamont Gaillard… 

“He has told us that he will miss playing with us. As an O-line unit, we are going to do our best to send him out the right way. He has taught me a lot of technical things like reading defenses, understanding coverages and seeing who is blitzing.”

#11 Jake Fromm | So. | QB

On being motivated for the Sugar Bowl…

“If you go around the team and ask everybody, ‘Hey is this where we wanted to be?’ The answer is, ‘No, it’s not, but we’re excited to be here.’ It’s the Sugar Bowl. It’s a really big bowl so we’re excited, we’re working, we’re trying to get better and we’re going to come out and win this last football game. … I think a lot of the seniors, even some juniors, guys who want to play at the next level, have motivation right there. Young guys want to prove themselves. In one way, shape or form, some guys are going to find some motivation to play in this game. It’s not if or when or who, everyone’s going to be a motivator, everyone’s going to come out and play and we’re going to be excited.”

On younger teammates using bowl practice to grow and develop…

“It’s a great opportunity to grow. There’s a lot of guys stepping up and getting more reps. Seniors have actually left practice about halfway through so young guys can get more reps and develop. Guys are moving around, playing different positions, and getting the most reps possible. They’re trying to grow and become the best football player they can.”

On motivating his teammates as the quarterback…

“I think a lot of guys on the team still have a lot to prove. A lot of seniors want to improve their draft stock and a lot of the young guys want to compete for starting jobs next year, so there’s plenty of room and plenty of motivation for guys out there. There’s a little more I can do, but a lot of it is, ‘Hey, let’s come in, let’s finish this thing out for these seniors, and go out and play a football game.’ We’re playing a great opponent and guys want to compete and play at their highest level.”

#44 Juwan Taylor | Sr. | LB

On looking ahead to the Sugar Bowl after the SEC Championship game…

“The first week was tough to get over, a lot of people were down. Now everybody is positive about the situation. Everybody came to work on Thursday with a positive mindset and ready to go.”

On motivating teammates as a senior…

“The way I lead is by setting an example. I come out to practice and go full speed and get everybody to follow me and play at my tempo.”

On bowl practice serving as opportunity for younger players to improve…

“These young guys, it’s good for them, because we’re really back to camp-style practices. I’ve been practicing myself and giving these young guys more reps so they can get better and get ready for next season.”

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