No sophomore slump for Georgia football’s Smart
COLUMBIA, MO. • Six games into his second season at Georgia, Kirby Smart seems to have this head-coaching thing figured out.
When the Bulldogs fired longtime coach Mark Richt during a 10-win season in 2015, the school gambled on the younger, less experienced Smart, who’d spent a decade learning from the game’s ultimate mastermind, one season under Nick Saban with the Miami Dolphins and another nine at Alabama. The Bulldogs favored pedigree and local roots over head-coaching experience — not unlike Missouri’s choice to replace Gary Pinkel with Barry Odom the same week in December 2015.
Smart, 41, and Odom, 40, born 11 months apart and both defensive coaches by trade, are among the nine Power Five head coaches in charge of their alma mater. Smart’s fourth-ranked Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) host Odom’s Tigers (1-4, 0-3) on Saturday, a game that looks like another step along Georgia’s march to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, where the Bulldogs haven’t played since 2012.
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Georgia, 8-5 in Smart’s debut season, has surged to 6-0 behind a relentless defense that’s allowed just six touchdowns and 10 points per game. Heading into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. Central kickoff at Sanford Stadium, only Penn State has allowed fewer points than Georgia’s veteran defense, a unit oozing with talent mostly stockpiled during Richt’s regime.
Georgia runs a 3-4 base system, like the one Smart coordinated under Saban at Alabama, featuring edge-rushing outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Devin Bellamy flanked around a deep rotation of linemen. Eighteen of the 23 players on Smart’s defensive depth chart were recruited by Richt, but Smart’s staff has meshed UGA’s stash of four- and five-star talents into an elite unit.
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In some areas, Smart inherited enough talent from the Richt years to run his favored scheme.
“In some places we weren’t as big and deep,” he said earlier this fall. “We need to continue to recruit guys to fit that mold. … More and more today you’ve got to have (defensive backs) to play against multiple spread teams.”
Collecting local talent has never been a problem at Georgia. Nineteen of the 23 defensive players on Smart’s depth are from the state of Georgia. Fifteen were rated four- or five-star recruits by 247sports. All seven linebackers were four-or five-star recruits and from within the state border.
To manage that talent, Smart put his ego aside when he got the job and delegated play-calling to coordinator Mel Tucker, a veteran assistant who’s been in charge of NFL defenses in Cleveland, Jacksonville and Chicago.
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“If I had to hire someone younger who hadn’t called (plays) I may have been more involved,” Smart said. “I searched and when I went to find a coordinator, Coach Tucker had done it for years in the NFL and been successful before. I felt very comfortable that he knew our scheme and how to use it.”
The last two Mizzou-Georgia meetings have been one-possession games — Georgia won 9-6 in 2015 and 29-28 last year — but with a more complete roster on both sides of the ball, this Bulldogs team has the makings of a playoff contender. After a one-point win at Notre Dame, UGA walloped Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt by combined scores of 117-17.
“They swarm to the ball really well,” Missouri quarterback Drew Lock said. “They’re going to come down and attack us. We’re going to attack right back. It’s going to be a fistfight every single play, which is what we expect.”
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When he took the Georgia job, Smart put veteran play-caller Jim Chaney in charge of the offense and has since signed five-star quarterbacks each of the last two years. Jacob Eason, last year’s starter, hurt his knee in UGA’s opener against Appalachian State and has since watched freshman Jake Fromm start the last five games. The Bulldogs added to their collection of quarterback riches last week when five-star 2018 recruit Justin Fields committed.
For now, the job belongs to Fromm, another Georgia native Smart had recruited since ninth grade. Backed by a robust running game that features four interchangeable backs, led by SEC rushing leader Nick Chubb, Fromm has coolly led the Bulldogs to four straight lopsided wins.