Georgia’s Kirby Smart focused on ‘team programming’ ahead of spring practice

ATHENS – Kirby Smart is rocking some new terminology. He used it a lot Tuesday when meeting digitally with reporters in advance of the Georgia’s fast-approaching spring football practice. He used terms like “culture,” “team DNA” and “winning between the ears.”

It’s all part of an initiative Smart calls “team programming,” and the sixth-year coach believes it will help develop the Bulldogs into not just one of the better football teams in the country, but some of the better people as well.

Smart said it’s all part of the “total-person concept” that UGA has embraced in the last year amid a pandemic that included a national whirlwind of social change.

“Team programming has been really big for us this offseason,” Smart said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve started having some ‘skull sessions,’ 15-, 20-minute, incremental (meetings) that we’ve been doing with our players in small groups. Small groups work a lot better, obviously, during a pandemic. But the guys have really felt a connection as we try to define what our team DNA is. We’ve been really intentional about that.”

A grass-roots effort started by players and coaches last summer is being organized now by Courtney Gay, who was hired in December as Georgia’s new assistant athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion. Her position was created as a result of the financial gift donated by NFL quarterback Matthew Stafford and his wife, Kelly, both UGA alums. Since coming on board, Gay has brought in dynamic speakers and social experts to educate and inspire Georgia players toward initiating social change themselves.

“She’s done a tremendous job, and that has helped us move this needle forward on social issues that have occurred in the past,” Smart said. “This last year, it all became more relevant for our team.”

Last summer, Georgia football players created a group called “Dawgs for Pups” to figure out ways to impact the local community and initiate positive change. Supervised by receivers coach Cortez Hankton and running backs coach Dell McGee, last fall they raised more than $100,000 to provide wireless Internet access for Clarke County School District students, collected almost 30,000 pounds of food in a school-snacks drive, solicited the donations for 437 coats to give away in November and bought Christmas gifts for 100 local families in December.

“It’s something we’re extremely proud about,” said Hankton, who is entering his fourth season with the Bulldogs. “Our guys have taken an awesome approach and really embraced serving this community.”

Hankton said the group is brainstorming for more initiatives to unveil this spring.

All that is well and good, of course. But with the start of spring practice only two weeks away (March 16), Georgia football fans are wondering how well-suited the offensive line is going to be for protecting quarterback JT Daniels or what cornerbacks might emerge as starters in a defensive backfield that was decimated by NFL draft early-entrants. Georgia opens the season against Clemson in what’s expected to be a top-5 matchup in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4.

Credit: UGA Athletics

Georgia offensive line coach Matt Luke talks about the Bulldogs’ versatility and the importance of having players who can switch to multiple positions.

Smart, Hankton, McGee and offensive line coach Matt Luke addressed those issues as well:

On the offensive line shakeup after center Trey Hill and guard Ben Cleveland turned pro …

“Jamaree (Salyer) will play both guard and tackle,” Luke said. “… Ultimately my job is to put the best five guys on the field, and that’s what spring practice is for. That’s what all the lifting and running is about right now. When the game kicks off, we’ll have the best five out there.”

On who might emerge from spring as the starting cornerbacks …

“The cornerback position is completely open,” Smart said. “To name two guys is probably not smart of me. We have a lot of guys that could be working at cornerback. Every guy on the team is a potential cornerback right now. We are in search of guys that can play that position at a high-level in a really tough conference. You look across the SEC, throwing the ball has gotten better and better, and we don’t want those guys to get exposed. We are one of the conferences’ that plays more man-to-man than anyone else. So, you need have guys out there that can function. That position is up for grabs.”

On how Georgia will manage six tailbacks with the return of senior James Cook and fourth-year junior Zamir White …

“We don’t necessarily play seniority,” McGee said. “That’s why we have offseason workouts and spring ball. We’ll have evaluation and set the depth chart on how they perform day in and day out. It’s a constant battle with our guys.”

On the expectations for Georgia’s wide receiver corps in Year 2 of Todd Monken’s offense ...

“It’s huge to have the opportunity to be working under the same offensive coordinator a second season,” Hankton said. “That in itself is going to help these guys get better and better. Granted, we’re talented and you see some flashes of that here and there. But we’re going to have to become more consistent, and there are things we can improve on. So we can’t be complacent.”

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) takes a snap during the Bulldogs’ practice session for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Athens. The Bulldogs will face Cincinnati in Atlanta. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: UGA Sports

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Credit: UGA Sports

On quarterback J.T. Daniels participating in his first spring practice with the Bulldogs …

“For the quarterback, for the continuity of the offense, that’s critical,” Smart said. “You want to be able to get some relationships and some continuity built there. We began to improve offensively (last season), and we’ve got a lot of guys coming back, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have success.”

On the championship-or-bust mentality of the fan base …

“You have to be careful that you make things just about that,” Smart said. “I realize the standard of excellence that’s been created here and the expectations, and we never shy away from those expectations. But that’s not going to get you to the end goal. The end goal is to have a net-sum gain of positives … and are able to win championships.”

Georgia will get busy with all that soon enough. In the meantime, Smart is adamant that the Bulldogs’ work off the field is going to help achieve on-field goals this year as well.

“I’m here to tell you that what happens between the ears matters way more than how fast they’re running or what they’re doing or any of those things,” Smart said. “That mental side of things is the emphasis we have this offseason. It’s so much more important, the culture that’s created in your organization, to get the most out of your players, than who’s playing left corner or right corner.”