Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview 2020 football game vs. Tennessee
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Kirby Smart, Bulldogs preview 2020 football game vs. Tennessee

Kirby Smart
Photo: Walt Beazley/UGA

UGA football head coach Kirby Smart and four players, Ben Cleveland, Zamir White, Malik Herring, and Christopher Smith, spoke with the media on Monday ahead of Georgia’s upcoming game at home against Tennessee on Saturday, Oct. 10.

Georgia and Tennessee will square off at 3:30pm ET on CBS. Brad Nessler will call the play-by-play, Gary Danielson will provide analysis, while Jamie Erdahl will report from the sidelines.

Below is a transcript of the Tennessee press conference which was provided by UGA.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening statement … 

“It’s on to Tennessee. Jeremy [Pruitt] has done a tremendous job putting together a really good football team. He has built his team along the offensive and defensive line of scrimmages, and they have a good football team. They are very physical. They are very experienced at quarterback. They are very experienced in the secondary. I have a lot of respect for the way they play the game. I thought last year they played extremely physical against us — that’s the brand of football they play. I’ve got a lot of respect for that. I’ve known Jeremy for a long time, and it’s going to be two good football teams getting after it.”

On if he had a sense at the Sugar Bowl Cade Mays was planning to transfer … 

“No. I didn’t have a sense then. I thought Cade had done a tremendous job for us. I’ve got a lot of respect for Cade as a player and a person. That’s all I can say about it. He’s no longer with us. I am looking forward to the matchup. He’s a really good football player, one of the toughest players that I have been around, and I am looking forward to the matchup.”

On the waiver the SEC gave several players … 

“That’s a commissioner decision.” 

On the improvement of Tennessee’s offensive line this season … 

“I thought they were a really good offensive line last year. They are well coached. Will Friend, who worked here for a long time, is a tremendous o-line coach. He does a great job. That — combined with Coach [Jim] Chaney, who has a lot of experience coaching offensive football and offensive lines, he’s done a tremendous job. He and Will put together a physical run plan, they always do. They are going to find ways to run the ball. They are committed to the run, which you’ve got to be in the SEC. They have some good players up there. A lot of these guys played last year, so the addition of Cade, they’ve got really five returning starters when you look at it.”

On Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano and if he’s noticed a difference in him with the same coordinator two years in a row … 

“I have always had an immense amount of respect for Jarrett. He plays the game the right way. He is tough. He played some games when it was tough, when they didn’t have as good of an offensive line upfront early on. They are a lot better now, so I think he’s reaping the benefits of a better offensive line, a commitment to the run game. He’s played really well. I mean you look at the bowl game — he led a tremendous comeback. He has  been through the trials and tribulations, he’s had ups and downs, he’s played at Alabama in a game I thought he played well in. He’s done a lot of good things. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. Anybody that plays quarterback as long as he has in our conference has earned it.”

On bringing in Scott Cochran to run special teams and if he has been assisted by other coaches … 

“Special teams is a team event. We’ve got a lot of coaches that assist in special teams. We’ve got quality control guys that help on special teams. We all assist in that, and I don’t know if we all took this start or not. To be honest with you, I see that we left plays out there and left opportunities out there. We will be tested in that regard as high as ever this week because Jeremy’s commitment to special teams is very similar to ours. The starters, the best players are out there. They do a good job scheming people up, and they have always put a good package together. So, I wouldn’t just want to jump on the bandwagon that we are doing great in special teams. I thought we left some plays out there last week, and we’ve got to continue to grow in that area. We’ve got to get more players buying into that because when I don’t have a role as a starter, it’s a lot better when you say ‘man, I am going to go dominate special teams.’ We’ve got to get some more of our freshmen involved in that.”

On previous comments from Jeremy Pruitt in pursuit of a waiver for Cade Mays and the impact on their relationship…

“Not really. I know guys in the SEC will do anything they can to get guys eligible, and that’s their decision.”

On how pressure on a quarterback affects the quarterback and why coaches run blitz plays…

“Pressure on the quarterback causes indecision, it causes doubt. It causes confusion. I think it affects every quarterback differently because some do better against pressure, some do worse. You look at statistics and see how does he do against a three-man rush, a four-man rush, a five-man rush, a six-man rush, and you try to evaluate each quarterback on how they respond to pressure.  I think they blitz to change it up.  If you throw a mean fastball and it’s 101 mph and that’s all you have, eventually they’ll hit it. So, if you’re pitching, you better have a couple pitches, and the idea behind pressuring versus not pressuring is to be able to pitch.”

On the wide receiver position and how deep the unit can go…

“We want to give the best guys an opportunity to play. I don’t know how many people really realize it, but LSU last year didn’t play really more than three wideouts the entire game. If you have tremendous conditioning, you play the best players. We don’t think that we’re in the best mid-season form in terms of shape, so we are rolling guys and playing guys. At the end of the day, it’s about playing the best players and giving your team the best opportunity to win.  We are comfortable with the guys we’ve got and we are developing the ones that are younger and getting better.  We are going to continue to do that, and I would love to have it where we have 10 guys that can go out there and play winning football, but it’s hard to rep that many guys at that position.”

On the toughness of trying to coach while wearing a mask on the sideline and if coaches should do a better job of keeping the mask on…

“Absolutely, I’ve been talked to by the commissioner and several others.  This has helped me tremendously (holding up his mask), because this is one that stays with me the whole time. I just have to figure out a way to get it tighter and more comfortable on there. The biggest thing is when you’re in the middle of coaching and talking to somebody, you have to get comfortable being able to leave it up and leave it on. And that’s probably the toughest thing.”

On the execution of the offense and how much Todd Monken has contributed to that coming together…

“Well, it’s still coming. We didn’t execute perfectly on Saturday, and I don’t know that you ever will execute perfectly, but we have to do it at a much higher rate.  If that’s 70 perfect clean, we have to be 85 perfect clean, we have to be 95 perfect clean.  We have to be able to function with everybody on the same page in terms of alignment and assignment. There are so many details that go into the execution of an offense, and we don’t have those details mastered yet. We have some young players. We have some guys playing for the first time still and they’re growing. They just have to grow faster. Todd [Monken] does a great job of teaching the ins and outs of why you do it, how you do it. The reason for why you do- it’s not like he’s trying to trick somebody. You out execute people and you maybe do it better than they do it.”

On the offense’s execution…

“I thought that our second half probably wasn’t as explosive as our first half. Some of that had to do with Auburn, some of that had to do with us, some of it had to do with the score, a lot had to do with the defense. When you don’t get off the field on defense, it’s hard to be explosive on offense. You get less at-bats. So, we’ve got to do a better job in terms of that.”

On the status of Jermaine Johnson…

“As far as Jermaine, he’s done a tremendous job for us. He had a really good camp, put on some weight, has gotten better. He was a little dinged up going into the last game and we were going to use him if we needed to, if we thought we really needed him. The way the game played out, didn’t necessarily have to. We feel good about him, and he’s working to get healthy.”

On the targeting ejection of Richard LeCounte…

“It’s a tough rule because they’re doing it for the safety of the game. As a parent of a kid who plays the game, I think it’s important to emphasize the safety as much as you can. Since they’ve implemented the rules, they’ve certainly cut down on the amount of targeting and head injuries. Unfortunately, some things in football are just going to happen. I don’t think it was a situation where he was leading with the head, but it ended up being to the head and neck area, and sometimes that happens to a DB because the receiver moves. But that’s sometimes beyond your control. It’s part of the game. It makes the game safer which is probably the right thing to do.”

On comparing Tennessee and Auburn …

“I think the experience they have on the fronts. When you look at a defensive line and an offensive line, I really believe that’s where the game starts because there’s nothing easier than being able…if you can run the ball, it makes the game easier. And when you can’t run the ball, it makes the game difficult. That’s all based on your offensive line and their defensive line. Now, that’s not to say there’s not some offensive line out there that’s got great pass pro, or the team can throw it for 600 yards and never run the ball and be successful, that does exist. LSU broke that norm—it’s not like they couldn’t run it, they didn’t have to run it last year. When I start with Tennessee, I see they have a commitment to the run. They’re physical on the offensive line. They’ve got a deep offensive line. They’ve got big people on the defensive line. They’ve got experience, they have big people, they’re physical up front. So, when you start with those two, they’re just better right now than where Auburn is.”

On the performance of Zamir White…

“I like his special teams play. He’s had two really critical blocks that’s sprung our kickoff return unit. He has done a good job picking up pressures, caught the ball out of the backfield. His yards after contact was much better this game than last. His leadership is starting to take form, and he’s starting to get more comfortable in that role.”

On the status of James Cook…

“James will be day-to-day. We’re trying to get him back. We think he’s going to be OK to go. We thought he could’ve gone on Saturday night, but again, I’ll know a lot more after practice today because I haven’t seen those guys.”

On his opinion of how far along the installation process is for the team since they did not have spring practice…

“Not really. Traditionally, we have installed in the spring and reinstalled in the fall, so whatever we installed in the fall we would have done in the spring and it would have been the second time. We would be much more efficient at doing what we are doing. It’s not like we have more volume. There is only so much space between the years that these kids can handle it. You have to be careful not to overload that.”

On the hype of Tennessee’s offensive line and his assessment of how Georgia’s defensive line has played thus far…

“We have an experienced defensive line. I think they played hard, played physical, and that is what we want to do. They haven’t faced a unit as a group, and a group of backs. A combination of really good backs, experienced quarterback and a very experienced offensive line, this is by far the biggest test.”

On Matt Landers’ development…

“Matt [Landers] has actually had a really good camp. Matt is learning our new system, and being able to play and execute is really important for Matt to know that. He’s contributed on special teams. That’s a situation where we’re really selling him on driving and really pushing vertical before he looks back. He didn’t find the ball right away, which is unfortunate because you would like for him to make that play. I still think Matt is a talented player that is working to get better every day.”

On Christopher Smith’s performance Saturday and Kearis Jackson’s production so far this season…

“Kearis [Jackson] has been a great leader. He’s been productive on the field as well as off. He represents us in so many ways. I am really proud of Kearis’ leadership, but also happy that a guy that works as hard as he does during the week gets rewarded for that. He’s one of those guys, similar to Mecole [Hardman] in how he works. He works so hard at practice that the games come easy to him. I am certainly proud of the way he is competing. He plays with physical toughness, the way you want to play. Chris [Smith] did a great job. He actually got a lot more reps last week. Richard [LeCounte] was banged up and Chris was more prepared to play than probably he ever has been. It was pretty unique that he got to go in after getting all of those reps, and that he got to go in and play there in the late first half, second half.”

On the other quarterbacks’ preparations behind Stetson Bennett…

“We’re going to continue to develop all of those guys. I think all of those guys are good quarterbacks. Carson [Beck], JT [Daniels], D’Wan [Mathis], whether they are throwing 7-on-7 against the scouts, or throwing against us on defense, whether they’re getting reps over there with the offense—they are going to continue to be developed because that is what they came here to do, and we want them a part of the game plan.”

On the difference in the environment at Saturday’s game without the traditional Dawg Walk and recruiting events…

“From the kickoff to the end of the game, probably nothing was that different for us. Leading up to the Dawg Walk was definitely different. Recruiting—not being able to visit with prospects and share that atmosphere was a tough loss, but it’s kind of equal across the board.”

On Netori Johnson’s status…

“Netori [Johnson] is focusing on academics and focusing on some other things right now.”

On the potential rainy weather during Saturday’s game, and their preparation for difficult weather conditions…

“We have a schedule where we do it, not every week, but once every few weeks. With the forecast, we will have the capability of working on it.”

#74 Ben Cleveland | Senior | OL

On if he’s ever felt unprepared for a game at Georgia…

“Honestly, I cannot remember a time where we went into a game and thought, we could have done this, or could have done that. I feel like our coaching staff, they always do an extremely good job of making sure we got what we need and we’re good on our assignments and stuff like that. I think guys realize that if they’re not picking stuff up, it’s just like anything else. If you’re not getting something you’re going to spend a little more time trying to figure it out and I think our guys have done a good job of that in order to be prepared.”

On what was his experience was like at Georgia last year and improving each week…

“I’ve never seen a problem with our environment. I like our team and I like our coaching staff. That’s viewed differently by every individual. That’s up to them and how they see things. As far as improvement goes, I feel like everybody gets a little better week by week. Playing a 10-game SEC schedule, it’s very hard to keep your body, what you feel like is tip-top shape. Keep all the bumps and bruises away. That’s when guys just got to take it on their own, get extra treatment, do what they need to do to feel healthy. I feel like everybody improves every week just because the more reps you get the more you’re going to learn it and the better you’re going to be.”

#3 Zamir White | Redshirt Sophomore | RB

On whether he thought Georgia’s offensive performance against Auburn is credited to holes opening up or UGA running better…

“It was both. We were just so locked in and ready to play that game, because it’s a really big game. Every game is a big game for us, but we just had to go out there and just lock in.”

On what it is like having guys like Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter…

“Man, that’s easy. It’s crazy. You’ve got dudes out there like Jordan, 6-6 and I don’t know his weight, but that dude is huge, man. Then there’s Jaylen, and he’s just a really physical guy. He’s a great guy.”

On Georgia’s offensive performance against Auburn and how UGA can continue having success on offense…

“Honestly, that just comes with practice and just being prepped and ready, Monday through Friday. It’s about getting ready for the game by practicing hard, being physical and getting out there and just playing football.”

#10 Malik Herring | Senior | DL

On if he’s seen the way Stetson has been playing in practice…

“Most definitely, I remember freshman year he went 20-for-20 in a practice. We always knew he was a great quarterback.” 

On how much he considered the draft and why he decided to come back…

“It was important to come back so I can get closer to earning my degree. I always felt like I could improve as a player here, so it really wasn’t a bad deal to come back.”

#29 Christopher Smith | Junior | DB

On what it felt like to play and how he thought he did…

“It felt amazing. Throughout the week Coach Smart had been telling me I had good practices and he felt like I was ready to play. I felt like I played well and had a couple good tackles, there was a lot of communication from the coaches to the players. It made things very easy for me.”

On what the transition was like when switching positions from Cornerback to Safety…

“When I came here, I was at corner back and Coach [Glenn] Schumann felt I was smart enough to play safety. At first it was a hard transition, but being behind J.R. [Reed], really helped me learn the position. Tyrique McGhee really helped me a lot too, giving me tips on how to play slot coverage at safety. It took me three or four months for me to adjust to the position, but after that I really started excelling and learning how to do things at safety and other positions as well.”

On the mindset he has about backing up two different positions…

“I know I always need to be ready, we have a next man mentality here and the coaches are always preaching for me to be ready for my time. I’m always ready when I step in, to do what I have to do to help the team.”

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