Georgia coach Kirby Smart feels closer than ever to players

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs are set to open preseason camp on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said some unexpected benefits have come with all the delays and restrictions dogging college football this year. He said he has gotten to know the players better and received more feedback from them than he has at any time in his career with the Bulldogs.

“We’ve got a really good core group,” Smart said Thursday night during a brief appearance on 680 The Fan’s Georgia High School Athletics Roundtable. “I would say this: Of all the teams I’ve had – and I guess I’m going on my fifth year – I’ve spent more time with the leadership group and with the players and visiting with them probably than I have the other four probably combined.”

After the coronavirus pandemic initially shut down college athletics in March, Georgia players returned to campus for voluntary workouts in early June and have remained semi-sequestered ever since. SEC teams were allowed to begin limited team workouts July 15.

On Monday, the Bulldogs will begin preseason camp 10 days later than originally scheduled. That was the plan the SEC introduced when it voted to play a 10-game conference schedule that will begin Sept. 26.

Thanks to all the delays and modifications created by the SEC’s attempt to keep the football season alive, Smart has found himself talking with the players more than ever. And he has found those meetings have been more meaningful and enlightening than ever.

“You’ve got to hear their voices,” Smart said in the interview with 247Sports.com’s Rusty Mansell, which was streamed on 680 The Fan’s YouTube channel late Thursday night. “I mean, we’ve got social injustice going on in the world; we’ve got unbelievable things happening with COVID and the pandemic; there’s the fear of them getting injured or being sick. There’s just so much information out there, and it’s coming so fast at them that we’ve made a concerted effort as a staff to spend time with them and hear their voice and ask them, ‘what can we do to assure you everything’s going to be OK? How can we do a better job of servicing you and servicing the community?’

“Doing that has shown me the likes of Jamaree Salyer, Richard LeCounte, Azeez (Ojulari), Travon Walker, Kearis (Jackson), so many guys who are a part of this group. Their leadership has been on the forefront because we haven’t had the natural opportunities like spring practice and recruiting events, so we’ve had to do it different ways.”

In a normal year, Georgia would be at least a week into preseason camp by now and coming out of a summer that was full of prospect camps and recruiting events. Instead, they have not had recruits on campus since January.

The NCAA adopted a dead period for February, then Georgia’s spring practice was canceled the week before it was supposed to start in mid-March while UGA was on still spring break. The pandemic subsequently wiped out all the spring and summer evaluation periods.

The Bulldogs’ 2021 recruiting class currently is ranked 14th in the 247Sports Composite. That’s considerably lower than the average ranking of 2.6 Georgia’s classes during Smart’s watch. But he feels like they’re holding their own.

“For us, it’s been finding unique ways to reach people,” Smart said. “Obviously everybody started using Zoom and we wanted to be the first to get on there because we knew it was going to wear everybody out. You’ve got to get creative. This year has redefined all recruiting. People started using their roster, their players, more. People started using their support staff, or the parents of current players. You have to get creative. … I spent a lot more time this year on the phone and on Zoom.”

The attention will turn decidedly toward the current team over the next several weeks as Georgia enters preseason camp. The Bulldogs have been conducting 14 hours a week of practice that was limited to strength-and-conditioning work, walk-throughs and meetings. Next week they’ll be able to don helmets, then shoulder pads, and eventually hold fully padded, full-contact workouts.

The modified preseason practice calendar as presented by the SEC’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force allows for the regular limit of 25 preseason practices, but in this case those workouts will be spread out over 40 days until Georgia’s opener against a still-unknown opponent Sept. 26.

While there are still so many unknowns, expectations remain high for the Bulldogs. They were picked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches poll. Then, again, those rankings came out when all teams were still planning to play. Since then, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and several other Group of Five conferences have elected to postpone football this fall.

So, what are Smart’s expectations?

“Our expectations are always the same: To get the most out of this team that we possible can,” Smart said. “And I really don’t know what that is yet. I don’t know those possibilities. We’ve got some unknowns at some positions, and we’ve got some talented competitions that I’m excited about. But while we’ve had some of this minicamp time, we’re going to have some hellified competitions at some positions and we have some talented young players that are going to help our roster.”

Probably the funniest thing Smart said was when Mansell asked him if he thought the Bulldogs were getting a break playing Alabama on the road this year. SEC teams are expected to be limited to 20-25 percent capacity if any spectators at all are allowed.

“I know this: They still have a stereo system,” Smart joked. “They’ll find a way to crank noise in there. I’m sure everybody in the SEC will.”