Smart, Bulldogs preview 2019 SEC Championship Game
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Smart, Bulldogs preview 2019 SEC Championship Game

UGA Football
Photo: Tony Walsh/UGA

ATHENS, Ga. — University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed Saturday’s game against LSU. The Bulldogs and Tigers kick off at 4 p.m. ET.

On Monday, Coach Smart and student-athletes offered the following comments.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening statement … 

“On to the big one. We have an exciting football opportunity to play what I think is one of the best teams in the country, as explosive as a team as I have probably ever watched on tape. I don’t even know what the numbers say. Obviously, the numbers say they’re really good. But I don’t go by that. I go by what I see on tape and they do a tremendous job.

Defensively, we have had them on tape, I know we overlapped on Auburn and Florida. And I think [Defensive Coordinator] Dave Aranda does a tremendous job. They have a very experienced secondary, talented up front, play a lot of players, just a tremendous overall program. And what Coach [Ed] Orgeron has been able to do with his program from the standpoint of winning big games, I mean, playing top-25, top-10 opponents, I think he’s been as good as anybody in the country. And I have a lot of respect for him, always have. I’ve known him for a long time. And his teams take on his personality, which is toughness, physical, and cut it loose.

So this will be as great a challenge as we have had, I know since I’ve been here as far as playing an opponent. And our players have earned this opportunity. We didn’t back our way into this game. We earned our way into this game. And we’re looking forward to the opportunity to play in what is probably one of the greatest stages, I said it over and over, in all of college football.”

On using the underdog role as motivation … 

“No, we really don’t bring that up. What we worry about is what do we have to do to execute well. And I don’t get into who is favored by how many or underdogs. It’s just not important because the people that make those decisions aren’t in this room. They’re not, like, in our meeting rooms, they’re not in our meetings, they don’t go there through our practices. So we try to control what we can control with how we practice and how we get ready. And as many of the games we’re favored in, it doesn’t matter, so if you’re not favored in it probably doesn’t matter either.”

On if he relishes the challenge as a defensive guy going against an explosive offense … 

“I probably did until about yesterday afternoon. I started watching the tape and then you realize that there really aren’t weaknesses. I mean, arguably one of the best backs in the country. I mean, just vicious attack, you spin, you hit, you — in the biggest games Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been one of the biggest players. Joe Burrow speaks for himself. I could go on and on. Wideouts, tight ends, they’ve got five, really, returning starters on their offensive line. They got defensive players. They got an outstanding all around team. It’s a tremendous opportunity to measure where you are as a team when you get an opportunity to play a team like this that is firing on all cylinders. I mean, there’s no such thing as a perfect game. Nobody will ever play it. But what they did last week on A&M was pretty incredible in all three phases.”

On if there is any advantage having experience in this game … 

“Experience is valuable. I think the experiences in the Mercedes Stadium, the routine, you go over there Friday, you walk through, we don’t typically walk through where we play. Well, this is a different deal, so we go over there and walk through where we play and a lot of our kids have done that a couple times now, but we’ve got 20 or so guys that have never done it because they’re freshmen and it will be their first time. So I don’t think that’s a big advantage by any means, but our kids have played in it. Like I said yesterday on the teleconference, their kids have played in a ton of big games. It’s not going to be any different for them or us when you play in the SEC and the stage you play on. Week-in and week-out you’re playing on CBS in front of the largest crowds in the country.”

On defense winning championships and how true that is in today’s college football … 

“You’ve got to play good football to win, period. I don’t know that the adage defense wins championships stands as much as it used to. When you saw scores from the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and you saw scores of games it was indicative of defense, compared to now. Now, it’s like I got to play pretty good defense and I got to score a lot of points. I can’t play horrific defense. I can’t play bad defense, but I might not have to be perfect, is the way a lot of teams have had success. They probably take more chances and risk and they just score tons of points. That’s not, I’m not talking about LSU. I’m just talking about college football. I think LSU plays really good defense and they are explosive on offense. But an explosive offense allows you to play a certain way on defense, too, because you know that you’re going to score a certain amount of points. Sometimes that changes things. But I can’t say, because you could go over the history of the last 10 years, still there’s been some really good defenses that have won national championships. The Alabama ones, the Clemson ones. A lot of them get overshadowed by really good offenses, but there’s been some good defenses winning.”

On if there is a transition period for a quarterback when there is a new coach in the case of Jake Fromm … 

“No, I don’t think so. We really don’t have a new quarterback coach because it’s the same guy that did it last year. Different coordinator. But I don’t think, if anything, they’re probably on, better on the same page because they’re in a second year of being in the room together. So I think that’s a big part of growth and growing up, being able to do things. Biggest difference this year is who is healthy, who is out there playing. I mean, three guys are in the NFL that were out there playing last year and, really, five when you count Holyfield and Nauta. So there’s not been a level of consistency with the perimeter skill that there probably was last year. That’s the biggest difference.”

On the Georgia defense leading the SEC in nearly every category compared to previous defenses he’s coached … 

“It’s a hard comparison. I mean, first of all, our defensive staff, I give tremendous credit to the coaches on our staff. I don’t take credit for that myself just because I’m a defensive guy. I think our coaching staff, [Dan] Lanning, [Glenn] Schumann, Charlton [Warren] and Tray Scott have done a tremendous job. Our players have done a tremendous job of working hard, buying in. Look, we don’t have natural star power on our defense that a lot of the defenses I’ve been a part of that were successful had that. They had three or four first rounders. This group plays really hard and well together. They’re well coached and they’re fundamentally sound. But this, obviously, will be the ultimate test, best offensive unit we have played all the way around, really not even close.”

On if he looks at last year’s Georgia-LSU game in Baton Rouge … 

‘You always watch it. You have it in your breakdowns. You look at things, you look at matchups, you look at guys, playing guys, covering guys, because a lot of the guys are the same and you look at those things. But schematically, they’re different. They hurt us with some things last year. Some of the things they hurt us with last year they still do. Some of them they don’t. They’re just a really different team from an offensive perspective. From a defensive perspective, they’re not exactly the same team, but they’re more similar.”

On where the decision comes from to call a fake punt or a fake field goal in big games…
“I think you just work on things. You are always looking for an advantage. No different than Geoff Collins and them last week with Georgia Tech. You’re saying that if I get an opportunity to steal a possession because I think someone’s unsound or not ready for something, then you try to give your kids a chance to win. I mean, you saw it last week in Auburn and Alabama. I mean, it was not a trick play. It was a maneuver to get an extra possession and they gained an extra possession at the right time and that’s big. So I think anytime you can find some advantage, some ability to do that, it’s important to do it. Just got to be calculated. You have to understand why you’re doing it and you hopefully are going to be successful at it. Otherwise it doesn’t look real good.

On having to give extra motivation to the rest of the receivers with Lawrence Cager out and George Pickens out for the first half…
“No, it’s very similar to last week. As far as, hey, guys, you’re going to get an opportunity to play. Step up and make plays. We had some guys do that. We had some guys catch balls that haven’t caught balls in a long time or very little all year. And they made some good plays. You’re going to get one-on-one opportunities when you play in our offense because of the run game. So you have to win your 50/50 opportunities. You have to take advantage of it. And it will be very similar to last week in regards to not who we’re playing but the guys on the field.”

On what makes LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire so difficult to play against…
“Baller. I mean, he is a football-playing machine. When they cut out a running back and say, this is going to be a running back, this guy is as explosive quickness — he makes the best football tacklers in our conference miss. So when you got football players that are playing against him from Auburn, Florida, Alabama, and he’s making them miss, you get immediate respect with the toughness that he runs with. And I mean, the kid is, he’s got an incredible drive and ability and willingness to break tackles and toughness that I just respect. He plays the game the way it should be played, and they play him an awful lot because he’s really good.”

On getting James Cook the ball and utilizing him more…
“He has been utilized quite a bit. When he’s been healthy, he’s been out there a good bit. Some of them are what we call PRO’s, which I talked about before. So they’re controlled by what the defense gives us, not by touches necessarily for him. In the last couple weeks we have given him a few more carries. It boils down to us, really, saying, all right, who are the best football players to give us the best opportunity to win. And he’s at a position where it’s more shared. To be a wideout and go out there and play wideout, that’s not a natural position for him. So the things he’s able to do, the things he’s really strong at, are best around the back field. We happen to have other strong guys in those areas. So we’re trying to find ways to get him the ball.”

On if the rotation and use of Ben Cleveland, Solomon Kindley, Cade Mays and Jameree Salyer is based on rhythm or matchups…

“No, it’s a practice thing. It’s who practices the best, who gives us the best chance to win, who is playing the best within the game, who is prepared, who is doing the best job of communication based on fronts, and who is pass pro-ing. So, basically, whoever is playing better, we try to play.”

On what LSU’s offensive line provides in pass protection and run blocking…

“Great experience. Look across the board, all five of them have played a ton of games, they communicate really well, they have got a great system to help those guys out, whether it’s chipping in protection to protect them on one-on-ones. They got a really good complimentary run game, they do a tremendous job of making decisions at the line, they’re in the right play very often because people can’t play them in hard boxes because of their wideouts, so it allows them to be really, really successful at checking run, checking pass off of looks and making things look the same and being able to do different things off of them. And their offensive line is the key to that because they’re the ones that protect the quarterback.”

On Jake Fromm’s comfort level with Dominick Blaylock… 

“I think that’s been the case with each of the wideouts. (Jake) has had so many different guys in the lineup that he’s familiar with them, he’s comfortable with them, I think he likes Dom, because Dom is a guy that is constantly working, he’s where he’s supposed to be, he runs the right route, he runs it the right depth. Jake has a trust with all those guys but he and Dom have grown for sure.”

On the confidence level with the depth of the running backs… 

“Very confident. Zamir (White) had some good games and gotten to play more and more, we’re trying to find ways to use him. James (Cook) the same way, and Kenny (McIntosh) got to go in the game and did some good things the other day, so I feel very comfortable about the other guys. Obviously (D’Andre) Swift has a different skill set probably as a total package than all of them, and we want him to be in there, but we have got some depth at that position that we can use guys.”

On the fan support and Georgia fans traveling to away games…

“Yeah, I think it helps. Our guys love any environment. A lot of players will probably tell you they like a hostile environment more than they like a home environment because they like to go in and get in front of the other team’s fans and play well and be motivated by that. I certainly like the fact that you can go on the road and in certain locales and take over a stadium. It says a lot about your fan base and the passion they have for the game. But we know in the SEC that’s tough, because you’re going to find very few places you can do that.”

On the importance older players mentoring the younger players on the team…  

“Well it’s important to have a big brother. I mean, we all have mentors and you grow. A young player, I mean, young players across the country, you have to grow up. And when you have an older player, that’s able to help you with that, I think it’s always a benefit and we’re always trying to get our guys to help out the younger players in every facet.”

#77 Cade Mays | Sophomore | OL

On the challenges LSU’s defense presents for Georgia…

“They’re a well-rounded defense. They’ve got a great front seven, a good back and good secondary. They’re very deep on the D-line and linebackers.”

On whether the fact that Georgia has gone to the SEC Championship before helps going into this year’s…

“It definitely helps our whole team. We’ve been in big games before, so it’s important we know not to let the moment be bigger than it is and live in the moment. The stadium is packed, and it’s one of the biggest games of the year. Everyone is hype.”

On how Jake Fromm has handled criticism this season…

“He’s definitely handled it well. He knows himself, and he’s true to himself. He comes out and works hard every single day, and he doesn’t let anything affect him. He’s focused on what he’s supposed to do.”

#87 Tyler Simmons | Senior | WR 

On what George Pickens can provide in the second half …

“I feel like it definitely can. I know, personally, Jake is very close to George and they have great timing. It can definitely give us some spark in the second half if it does come down to a close game.”

On if you take responsibility to step up being the older guy…

“Yeah, like you said, I am the oldest guy in the room. I have the most experience. It is up to me to put myself on that higher pedestal and try and bring those young guys with me.”

#13 Azeez Ojulari | Redshirt-Freshman | OLB 

On what makes LSU different than previous teams…

“All of the weapons they have on offense is critical. They have their quarterback, a Heisman candidate, their receivers, great backs. They have talent all-around the offense.”

On how Richard LeCounte’s energy helps the defense… 

“He brings it every day, every practice, every week. He brings that energy and he is a leader on the defense. He impacts other players because when he is going hard it makes other players go hard. He is doing it for the team, for the school, for his family. He brings that energy and leads the secondary and everyone follows along.”

#94 Michael Barnett | Senior | DT

On how he would describe LSU’s offense…

“I feel like their offense is well rounded. They pass the ball really well, their receivers know where to be, their quarterback knows where they’re going to be. Timing is really well. Their running game is good. Their running back number 22 [Clyde Edwards-Helaire] is really good. Their offensive line is pretty solid up front.”

On Joe Burrow…

“He’s ready. He’s league ready. He knows where he wants to go with the ball. He knows the scheme, where the coaches what they want to do as far as what they want to do with the players and what not. He knows his wide outs and where they’re going to be. The timing is well. He’s a really good quarterback.”

On what it will take defensively to slow down LSU…

“Going into a game like this is really about honing in on your fundamentals. If you focus on the little things, the big things will come. As a defensive line, we’re supposed to know what we’re doing upfront. Linebackers making the right calls and safeties making the right adjustments. If we’re all in the right place, good things will come.”

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