Kirby Smart: Georgia’s slow starts ‘absolutely’ a concern

Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) greets staff members before Georgia’s game against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. This was McConkey’s first game of the season coming off of an injury. Georgia won 27-20. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) greets staff members before Georgia’s game against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Saturday, September 30, 2023, in Auburn, Al. This was McConkey’s first game of the season coming off of an injury. Georgia won 27-20. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS – Georgia has scored 17 points in the first quarter. Not last week or the week before or the week before that. In all weeks – combined.

Reminded of that stat this week, coach Kirby Smart’s eyes widened. He is, of course, aware of it. Like everybody else, he’s not happy about it.

“Absolutely we need to improve,” he said after the Bulldogs had wrapped up practice Tuesday night. “But we look at everything. You know, I think we went three-and-out one time on offense. Every other time we moved the ball, which that’s what you want to do. Obviously, you want to score, but you want to move the ball so you can create field position.”

That’s the paradox of Georgia’s offense this season. It has moved the ball all year. For whatever reason, they just haven’t cashed in often in the first quarter.

Early on that was due to red-zone breakdowns. Lately, turnovers have been a bugaboo.

The Bulldogs had just three possessions in the first quarter against Auburn. On one, they ran six plays, then punted. On another, they threw an interception on second down. On the last, they ran five plays before the first-quarter clock expired. That drive was completed on six more plays to start the second quarter, ending in a touchdown.

“I’ve had years where you score every first possession … and then for a while we couldn’t get it started in the third quarter,” Smart said. “We could never get any momentum going in the third quarter. We were off on the third quarter one of the years we won a national championship. It’s something you try to address and think about the way you start the game, but you don’t want to overthink it because we’re trying to plan for the whole game.”

In its two SEC games, Georgia fell behind South Carolina 7-3 and Auburn 10-0. The Bulldogs definitely would like to get out front Saturday night against a Kentucky team that loves to run the football and grind out possessions. Points, as they have been the last few years in this series, are expected to be at a premium.

Defensive stops are equally valuable, of course. Opponents have played Georgia to a 17-all tie in the first quarter over the season. The Bulldogs had allowed just six first-quarter points through five games last season.

Kentucky’s offense, averaging 37 points and 170.4 yards rushing a game, will be the toughest the Bulldogs have encountered yet.

Some of Georgia’s slow starts have just been a fluke of circumstance. The Bulldogs are averaging 70.8 plays per game. Only Tennessee (73) and LSU (71) have run more.

“There’s a lot of reasons why it happens but, I mean, we’ve got to play better,” Smart said.

Thorson booming

Brett Thorson will have been in the United States for three years this December. He’s just now starting to feel at home.

It’s hard enough to live far away from home no matter where one is from. But if you’re a native Australian and you show up just as the team you’re joining leaves town, it can be especially difficult. That was the scenario in which Thorson found himself when he arrived at UGA in January of 2021, just as the Bulldogs made their way to Indianapolis for the national championship game.

“He flies in here, shows up and is like, ‘hey, my new family,’ and everybody’s gone,” Smart said with a laugh. “He’s just more confident now, more social. He came from a long way.”

And Georgia’s glad to have him. Thorson is sixth in the SEC with a 44 yard average and 42.8-yard net. More importantly, he has pinned opponents inside the 20 eight times with only one touchback.

It all has been quite an adjustment for a former “footy” from Melbourne.

“When I came over here, I’d never been behind a line of scrimmage with protectors,” Thorson said. “We’d replicate it at ‘Pro Kick,’ but you can’t replicate 6-foot-5, 300-pound O-linemen moving in front of you and guys sprinting full speed at you. So just getting comfortable with that and knowing how to make myself comfortable kicking the ball and placing the ball where they want it to go takes some getting used to.”

Thorson got quite an indoctrination last year and held up well. He averaged 45 yards on 36 punts and never had one blocked. But he averaged just above two punts per game. That’s up to 3.2 per game so far this season.

Bullard’s ‘fine’

Strong safety Javon Bullard was limping severely after last Saturday’s game. After missing the previous two games with an ankle injury, the star defensive back returned against the Tigers and recorded 10 tackles and two pass break-ups.

No fear, Smart said, Bullard is good to go this week.

“Unscatched,” Smart said. “He was sore. Long game. Hadn’t had that much running, physicality and use the previous two or three weeks. You just get sore when you don’t do anything for that long. He’s been good. He’s recovered.”

McConkey, Milton updates

Smart loved seeing what Ladd McConkey was able to do last Saturday against Auburn. After not playing in the first four games due to a back injury, the junior flanker had four catches for 38 yards against the Tigers – three that happened to result in third-down conversions. But even after McConkey practiced the first two days of the week, Smart was not ready to pronounce him fully returned to the rotation.

“Again, he wasn’t back (last Saturday); he was in a role,” Smart said Wednesday. “He didn’t play a full load. I still don’t know what that’s going to look like game-to-game.”

Smart said McConkey’s availability against Kentucky will be determined “before the game.”

Smart was much more confident with regard to senior running back Kendall Milton.

“He’s been great this week,” Smart said. “He looks healthier this week than he did last. He’s got some speed and looks fresh out there, so we’re certainly hopeful he can impact that run game.”

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