Kirby Smart, Bulldogs comment on Signing Day and 2021 Orange Bowl
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Kirby Smart, Bulldogs comment on Signing Day and 2021 Orange Bowl

Kirby Smart
Photo: Mackenzie Miles/UGA

UGA football head coach Kirby Smart and three players, Nakobe Dean, Lewis Cine, and James Cook, spoke with the media on Wednesday about Signing Day and the 2021 Orange Bowl contest against the Michigan Wolverines.

The third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs will face the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. The game will be televised by ESPN at 7:30pm ET (Buy Tickets).

Chris Fowler will call the play-by-play, Kirk Herbstreit will provide analysis, while Holly Rowe and Marty Smith will report from the sidelines.

Below is a transcript of Wednesday’s press conference which was provided by UGA.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening Statement on Signing Day…
“I’m excited about these guys joining us. Another great group, very hard-working staff to bring this into one group. It’s still not over, as far as our guys will sign in February. I’m excited about this group. It’s been one of the funnest to recruit here. It was kind of a half-COVID recruiting class because they didn’t get to come to campus until June 1. Everybody came through—it was a wild time with everyone trying to come at the same time. Our staff did a tremendous job. Our recruiting staff did a tremendous job. Our administration helped. Our academic folks that meet with these kids, they come on visits. There was a span from June 1 to June 28, 29, where we spent every single day here with somebody here, so that was a big part of our signing class. It started before that on Zoom, it started before that in communication, talking. But physically seeing people, in front of them, it was certainly great to have these kids being able to come to campus like they did. I’m proud of the group. We feel like it’s spread out the way it should be dispersed that way. We hit some needs that we needed. A lot of great stats that I could read through, but you guys have all those. It’s really a well-rounded class in terms of multiple-sport athletes, high academic achievers, top-ranked guys, which I don’t really care about what they’re ranked. I care a whole lot more about how they play, and we’ve seen evidence of the guys that have played a big role on our team, some of those guys were not the guys we talked about on this day during their career and I think we know a lot about those guys. It’s a lot more about what’s inside you that matters the most.”

On the emphasis placed on defensive backs in this class…
“We don’t have enough DBs now. I don’t know what you would be referring to—I don’t know how many are in there, I get confused between what’s in and what’s not in, but we don’t have enough. We’re still lower than we’ve ever been in terms of defensive backs. We have more leaving than we have coming. We were already below, so if you have more leaving than you have coming, you’re actually net gain, so we’re still working on that defensive back position. It’s a position that’s been tough for us this year because we’ve not been able to play dime packages, we’ve not been able to do some of the things we’ve wanted to do, put six DBs on the field. I am really proud of the DBs in this class that we have, but we’re not anywhere near where we used to be. I think there are seven that have left since the last year, then you throw in the seniors, those core Georgia guys that have been here forever and they’re all finishing. When you add those seven plus four or five, that’s a one-year window of 14 to 15 guys. In my mind, we’re still short numbers of scholarship players.”

On the addition of Gunner Stockton…
“The recruitment of Gunner was really interesting because we’ve known, at least I’ve known, Gunner since he was a small kid. His dad hosted me at an official visit at Georgia Southern many years ago, so I’ve known his dad for a long time. My dad was the high school there was Gunner was a young, young kid. Tremendous athlete, tremendous character, I don’t know you could raise a finer young man in today’s day and age of all the attention-seeking people. He’s never done that. He’s stuck to his guns that he loves UGA. He wants to be here, and certainly, a major part of our class.”

On the quality of the defensive backs in this class…
“I don’t think you actually ever know what you have. You certainly feel great about them, but to tab anybody the next guy or the first guy to start, it’s hard. The length and the speed is what stood out the most. We missed some size in recent years. We like to have length; we like to have toughness. I like intelligence; I like ball skills. I think a lot of these qualities and traits show up. Your ability to play man-to-man—more in college football now than ever before, if you have a liability in coverage, it’s easier to find it. It used to be we were all up in a little phone booth, now we’re all out here, so your mistakes or your guys who can’t cover, it’s almost out of control. They spot it and they get you. I think this group, number one, has speed, they have man-to-man cover ability and they’re going to help us. There’s just not enough of them. What’s interesting is it used to be you couldn’t find O-linemen and D-linemen, and I still think they’re hard to find, but you’ve got these top-notch schools all saying DBs because there’s not enough of them to go around. The premier position is to go play wideout and we’ve got to find some guys that can cover those guys.”

On the wide receivers in this class…
“It starts with speed. You’ve got to have vertical speed down the field, and we feel like we’ve got some guys that can really stretch the field and do that. High character—you’ve got to be able to learn, buy into the offense, understand the splits, understand the route tree, understand the intricacies that go with playing the position. We’ve got a really good group there. I think each one of those guys that we bring on board brings a different attribute, whether it’s excellent speed, excellent size, quickness, toughness, all the things you look for. Wideout is another position where when you look across the board, we’re down. We were down all year, not just because of injury but because we had three or four leave, and now, we’re trying to replace those guys and catch up, and that’s tough to do. I like to have the numbers where we hit quota, and you’re finding out more and more now it’s easier to leave than it is to get them, so we’ve got to get some more guys there.”

On the offensive lineman in this recruiting class…
“I think it’s like everything. You have a group, a class of O-lineman. Any NFL general manager or scout will tell you, ‘OK, this class is loaded with this.’ Last year’s NFL Draft class had a lot of really good corners. We had two good corners go pretty high. We had corners go before, but that was a really big corner draft class. As you look across the country, the offensive line class now, I’m not talking about recruiting rankings like you referenced—I would refer to that because they are going to have a certain number of five stars and four stars that they’ve got to hit—but the pool of offensive lineman probably wasn’t as great as it’s been in years past in terms of quality depth at that position. Now if you go statistically, there is 100 four stars, 20 to 25 five stars. There may be the same number, but we’re talking about on our board we rank things completely different than stars and things like that. We rate them where we can rate them across classes. Compare a guy three classes ago to a guy in this class. There were probably not as many guys. I feel great about the guys we got. We have a couple guys with great size. We have a couple of guys with great upside, kids that we think are going to be really good players that maybe haven’t played football for a long time. I love the core group we got, and we have a good group here, a good nucleus here on campus that we feel good about in terms of offensive line.”

On having two signing periods, NIL deals, and the Playoff all at once…
“I don’t, I don’t have many thoughts really. A mess would probably be your words. It’s the world I live in. It’s not a mess to me, it’s just the world I live in. You better learn to deal with it and be on top of it. We’re all dealing with the same ‘mess,’ so who handles it better is everything. I focus on how we can do it better and not on how messy it is.”

On Chandler “C.J.” Smith…
“Character. He’s a high character young man that we actually recruited a long time and had an official visit set up with and then he ended up committing to Florida. After that, we kept in contact with him. I think he has a great set of parents—military-based, on time to everything. Academics are important to him. He’s really fast. A track guy. Has excellent hands. When you look at the skill positions, that’s the one trait you really don’t develop as much as a lot of other traits—just sheer speed.”

On recruiting to the STAR position versus corner or safety…
“If we thought a guy could be a STAR, then we could also say he’d be a really good corner or safety. It’s not that we recruit to the STAR position. Certainly, it is a position in and of itself. He’s on the field 80, 85 percent of the season, but we don’t look at it that way. I look at it as you’re developing two positions when you’re here at any position. If you’re a guard, you’re developing as a center too. If you’re a tackle you might be developing as a guard or center. If you’re a back, you’re going to develop as a wideout because you play in space. If you’re a wideout, you’re going to develop as a slot. Everybody has two homes because we want to develop you where you become better and not specialize. The STAR position is a guy—we’ve had corners that have played STAR and we’ve had safeties that have played STAR.”

On Malaki Starks… 
“I think Malaki has a bright future. He’s fast. Number one, he’s very intelligent. He’s high-character and you’re going to hear me repeat that over and over because that matters way more than what reputation they’re coming in with.”

On the importance of persistence in recruiting…
“It’s always the cause. I wouldn’t say that just this class has been persistence. It’s every class. It’s consistency in messaging. It’s consistency in communication. It’s the number one overall quality that I want to be known for in recruiting: consistency in performance, consistency in messaging, continuity of our staff and program. We won out a lot on that because a lot of folks by default had things change, and we didn’t have a lot of change. We were able to continue developing a relationship with people even if they were committed somewhere else because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Opening Statement on the Orange Bowl…
“We really haven’t focused on Michigan in terms of our preparation with the players, we have focused on us. We’ve been able to get a light practice in, I guess it was last Saturday, a heavier practice in yesterday. We’ve been able to get some conditioning and workouts in between as we’ve been recruiting. The players have been finishing up final exams; today is the last day of final exams so they’re finishing up those. They’ve had a hectic time getting ready for that. They’ve also had a little bit of off time, but as we turn the page towards Michigan, we as a staff have been working on them for several days now, preparing and getting things ready. We’ll start prepping the players for some of that here in the next couple days and we’ll batten down the hatches and start practicing heavier tomorrow for those guys.”

On the COVID-19 precautions with rising numbers…
“Ron (Courson) has had a heightened awareness in the recent weeks and days. We’ve got a large portion of our team that’s been vaccinated and continues to be diligent about that. We ask the guys that aren’t to be extra safe. We’ve taken some precautions around the building and to be smart. It’s certainly that time of year, we had a little bout with the flu there that made me concerned as well about COVID. Here in the last couple of days, we’ve been on top of it and our guys are understanding that we have to be safe and cannot lose anybody at this time. Ron and his staff have been incredible.”

On Coach Muschamp and Coach Schumann defensive coordinator clarification …
“The clarification is both (Will) Muschamp and (Glenn) Schumann will be co-coordinators. (Dan) Lanning has done a tremendous job here, he is by far and away one of the most loyal, hardworking guys that I’ve been around. He’s bright, energetic, a good teacher. He’ll do wonderful things at Oregon. I’m so happy for him that he got an opportunity for a job like that. He had had several interviews, several opportunities that he wasn’t interested in, some that he was, and it was one he thought was a great opportunity. I’m glad that he’s staying on with us to help us finish this thing out. He’s done a great job.”

On the physicality of Michigan…
“Great running game, great backs. Three really good backs, really physical. Just extremely physical at the point of attack. Two quarterbacks, one’s really athletic, the other is athletic and they use both of those guys. They’re doing a really good job. They keep you off-balance and they have great play-action game, great use of their tight ends. Defensively, they’ve come a long way from the Michigan I knew two or three years ago when we studied them in off-season when they had a lot of sacks and a lot of turnovers. (Mike) Macdonald has done a lot to change that and you can see they’re playing really, really hard, very sound on defense.”

On the team mentality following the SEC Championship loss…
“We haven’t done a lot. It’s really good to get them away, focus on finals, focus on their health, focus on other things they’ve got going on. To get somebody’s total focus, you can’t sustain that for four weeks, you can’t sustain that for three weeks. You want to build to a point of getting back to an in-season mode. I don’t think you can continue doing what you did in-season for three or four weeks because the game is too far away. We’ve taken a mental check to say what kind of physical and mental shape we’re in. Our guys are in a really good place. We’ve slowly have started to come back. The two practices we had, had high energy and they’ve done an awesome job, they’ve been great. It’s more about what they’re going to do from this point forward as we get into things the next couple of weeks.”

On the quarterback position…
“Yeah, I don’t know if I can answer all of those questions. There were like three of them in there. At the end of the day, I think we have four really good quarterbacks in our system. I really feel confident in four guys that can play quarterback for us. I continue to say and repeatedly say that all those guys are evaluated each and every day. Stetson did some really good things in the Alabama game. He made a couple bonehead plays as well, that he has not played and that he has not done in the past. Just like we reassessed every single position, just like I said after the game, we reassess everything by how you practice, what you do and everything you do. His feet have been a blessing for us. His ability to run, scramble, make things open, make plays with his feet have all been good. He made a couple poor decisions in the last game, but he is not the only one that did that. We will continue to evaluate it. I hope that answers it for you.”

On the Rose Bowl experience helping prepare for this year…
“There is a huge significance in every game. Just making sure that we are clear on that because I know there are people that think the bowl games don’t matter, but they matter. Certainly, being in the CFP heightens the attention to it and we have a really solid plan. I was able to be a part of that CFP process while at Alabama, was able to do it here and we feel really comfortable with the prep. We build up to a point, and then we have a Christmas break, and then we have a game week at the location. When we go to the location, we are honed in, we are focused, just like we would be for a bowl game. I think the intensity of the practice and the awareness of the situation of your leaders on your team is probably the biggest difference. People are really locked in and focused with an attention to detail, just like they should be for a bowl game. You don’t treat things differently, but our guys are aware of that and you prepare in a very similar fashion in terms of getting ready. Right now, we are actually trying to get our team better, get our twos and threes as many reps as possible because it is like an extra spring practice. I mean we will have 14-15 practices before we play and that is literally an extra spring practice.”

On keeping NFL Draft eligible players’ minds right…
“I think every year we go play we have a group of players that could potentially get drafted, I think you could agree with that. I think we have a group whether that be 16 or three, but we have a group. The distraction is only if you make it one. The best way to get drafted higher is to do what? Play well. I think the distractions outside of our building, they’re there year-round. The distractions of an agent or social media, that never changes, it only becomes greater and greater and greater as you move along throughout the season. These guys have been incredible on being focused on what they have to. I mean Michigan has guys that are going to get drafted, Alabama, Cincinnati, they all have good players or they wouldn’t be there. So, everybody is dealing with that, and how you manage it internally, I’m talking about within your skull session group, your leaders on your team. That is really a team that comes out ahead.”

On the historic defensive performance this season…
“I think it is week-to-week. I think it is really how your defense plays. Did our defense keep us in some guys where we didn’t have to shoot out? Sure. We did that some this year. We also had some where people scored. There were times at the Tennessee game it was looking like that. Certainty, the Alabama game would be one. A lot of that is based on what we did, meaning, ‘What did we do?’ We didn’t play this coverage right or we didn’t play that coverage right and when you don’t do those things, you give up big plays. When you give up big plays, you have to score points, so it is two-fold. It’s total complimentary football and the one thing we did really well this year was play complimentary football and we didn’t do that the last time out.”

On development of players like Javon Bullard and Kamari Lassiter…
“I don’t know how realistic. In my career, which is long being around bowl practices, I’ve probably been in a bowl game everywhere it seems I’ve been. You don’t see a kid go from like, ‘OK, he just had this magic switch, and he just took over.’ I’ve seen them grow and get better. We got some guys out there that I’m like, ‘Man, that guy has gotten a lot better. He is with the scouts working.’ But to say he is going to go play in this environment and take over, I think that is a little bit of a stretch. If injuries happen, yeah it could happen. But it’s hard when you say this kid has only been here almost six months, which is the case for some of the guys you mentioned, for them to leap frog and take over for somebody that has been playing in the system. It is not like you just have to play the guys in the system, no. You play the guy that gives you the best chance to win. That is what we do at every single position, you play the guy that gives you the best chance to win. When you do that, a lot of the times the youngest ones don’t have that opportunity. They haven’t been in enough battles to do that.”

#17 Nakobe Dean | Jr. | ILB

On the defense against Alabama…
“For the most part, the defense, we had discussions on the team about how we are going to build off the game and the type of impact it had on us there. We look forward to having nothing but a positive impact, like Jake (Camarda) and Jordan Davis. Like we say, smelling salts, kind of woke us up a little bit. So, it’s stuff like that and fighting to make us work harder.”

On feeling shocked when reviewing game tape…
“I wouldn’t say it’s shock, it’s a lot of execution, a lot of long recoveries. Basically, we had to play better, we got out played that day. That’s just the way it was.”

On Michigan…
“For the most part, they seem like a really good team. They have good players; they are well coached. I’m just looking forward to the game and the opportunity to play them.”

#16 Lewis Cine | Jr. | DB

On Coach Glenn Schumann and Coach Will Muschamp being masterminds of defense… 
“I would say it’s their years of experience, their years of coaching. Everything they have under their name in terms of where they’ve been and the people they’ve coached. It gives them credibility in how much they know. That’s why I call them a mastermind and I personally have learned a lot from them.”

On Coach Dan Lanning’s role in preparation for the game… 
“I don’t think his role is going to change. In my opinion, I think he is really going to soak in the last moment he has with us guys, the guys that he’s coached and got to know who they are other than just football players. He’s going to soak in that moment before he takes on the job at Oregon. Other than that, I don’t think his role is going to change.”

On who leads the defense and any changes that will be made in the next couple of weeks.. 
“Way before hearing about the (Dan) Lanning job, it wasn’t just one man taking control of what’s being said in the defensive meeting room. It was all of them. Whether it was Lanning coming up and talking, (Glenn) Schumann coming up and talking. They all took turns to talk about something different. Like I said again, we’re not seeing anything new in that because Coach Schumann and Muschamp have gotten up and talked about different things.

#4 James Cook | Sr. | RB

On the opportunity to play in his hometown of Miami…
“For me to possibly play one of my last college football games in my hometown and from where I’m from is great. To be able to play in front of all those people is an honor.”

On emotions while preparing for the bowl game vs. Michigan…
“It’s a little bit of everything as we prepare for this game. We have a chip on our shoulder since the last time we were out there, we lost. We know what we have to do to improve, and we have another chance to go out there which is very special.”

On practicing for the bowl game vs. Michigan…
“We are focusing on us in practice right now, just getting after it. We are getting guys back in shape. Everybody is locked in and we are taking it one day at a time to get ready for this game.”

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