Kirby Smart doesn’t close door on offensive changes at Georgia

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and current offensive coordinator James Coley (L) have been together for nearly five years now. (John Kelley/UGA Athletics)

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart and current offensive coordinator James Coley (L) have been together for nearly five years now. (John Kelley/UGA Athletics)

If Georgia offensive coordinator James Coley was looking for a vote of confidence from coach Kirby Smart, he’ll have to wait until the next opportunity to get one. And that may be a while in coming.

Smart was asked directly and indirectly Wednesday about the Bulldogs’ play-caller during what was the last media opportunity between now and the Dec. 27 arrival of No. 5 Georgia in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Smart’s answers would be unsettling to someone whose job security depended on his approval, as does Coley.

Smart was asked if he talked to his longtime friend and former Georgia teammate Mike Bobo about re-joining the Bulldogs’ coaching staff after Bobo was fired as head coach at Colorado State. Smart confirmed that they talked the week of the SEC Championship game, but not necessarily about joining the UGA staff.

“Yeah, I talk to Mike often and a lot, because we're really good friends,” Smart said. “But as far as conversations about coming to coach at the University of Georgia, no. He and I conversed about what he was going to do when he was let go.”

Bobo was either quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator or both at Georgia under coach Mark Richt for 14 seasons, from 2001-14. He left to become head coach of the Rams. Colorado State fired Bobo earlier this month. He went 28-35 in five seasons there.

Bobo became a head coach based on his success as Georgia's offensive coordinator. The Bulldogs produced record-setting offenses in almost every one of the eight seasons he called plays.

But Bobo ended up accepting a job as South Carolina’s offensive coordinator for Will Muschamp, another former Georgia teammate and close friend. Bobo replaces UGA alum Bryan McClendon, who remains on staff in an unknown capacity, at this point.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s offense struggled in its first season under the direction of Coley. With a game still to play against No. 7 Baylor, the Bulldogs have gained 1,175 fewer yards and 135 points fewer than they did the previous season under coordinator Jim Chaney. Their scoring average is down a touchdown per game, 31.2 points from 37.9, and their yards-gained average is down from 464.9 to 410.23.

Also, quarterback Jake Fromm appears to have regressed. Known as an exceptionally accurate passer his first two seasons, Fromm completed just 47 percent of his passes over Georgia’s final five games, never reaching even 50 percent in a single game.

There were extenuating circumstances with attrition and injuries at the receiver position. But the regression was stark compared with the national trend of spread offenses featuring dual-threat quarterbacks, such as LSU and Ohio State utilized on the way to the College Football Playoff and Alabama has employed recently.

Smart said the Bulldogs are considering a similar change in strategy, but he still insists they are not operating markedly different than most teams.

“We’ll look at it,” he said regarding an offensive overhaul. “But we just want to score points. I mean, you guys want a simple answer, like it’s just going to poof and happen. It’s all philosophy, it’s all the plays that are called and the play designs. It’s not everything. A lot of things go into having a successful offense, and we need to be better. I think everybody acknowledges that and that’s what we’re working on really hard.”

That’s where Coley’s status gets interesting. Would he be asked to install a different system, or would Smart seek someone else bring one in?

Smart was non-committal on that front.

“As far as any other changes or anything like that, that’s decided after the bowl game, after we look back at the whole year,” Smart said. “We’re working really hard right now on Baylor, on getting an opportunity to play, and that's where our focus is.”

Smart has a good person on staff to consult. Not only did new offensive line coach Matt Luke work under well-respected offensive minds David Cutcliffe and Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, he also had renowned spread-offense expert Rich Rodriguez working under him as offensive coordinator this season. Rodriguez was not retained by Lane Kiffin, the Rebels’ new coach, and is on the job market.

However, Luke’s relationship with Rodriguez is unknown. Also, Rodriguez has always brought assistant Calvin Magee with him wherever he coached. Magee is not expected to be retained by Ole Miss as tight ends coach.

Meanwhile, Smart has never been openly critical of Coley, who does have supporters on the team. Graduate receiver Lawrence Cager came to Georgia from Miami in no small part because of his relationship with Coley. And certainly Cager’s injuries the second half of the season did not help the Bulldogs’ offensive cause.

“I have a biased opinion of coach Coley,” Cager told reporters after the SEC Championship game. “He did a lot for my life and he’s been a great coach for me and all these guys. I know any guy in this room would go to bat for him. Whatever negative stuff is being said about him, those are people who really don’t know what’s going on inside of here. He shouldn’t be getting anything negative.”

Not long ago, Coley was considered a rising star. He had the opportunity to join Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M after the 2017 season but remained at Georgia, where he was receivers coach at the time. Smart fought to keep him then, promoting Coley to co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

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