UGA’s Kirby Smart talks player mental health, Jermaine Burton and more

Georgia Bulldogs football: A look at Kirby Smart's five seasons in Athens

Georgia Bulldogs football: A look at Kirby Smart's five seasons in Athens

ATHENS — Ten years ago, the mental health of football players wasn’t something Kirby Smart thought much about. Today, the Georgia coach can’t get enough of conversations about issues outside of football.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t present (10 years ago), but I don’t know that we addressed it as much as we do now,” Smart said. “A lot of our players struggle day-to-day with things like COVID, things going on in the world, things going on at home. And we just want them to feel comfortable being able to talk about whatever the topic is.”

The Bulldogs host “skull sessions” where players openly discuss personal matters with a rotating cast of coaches. Smart addressed the matter Saturday in response to a question about the MLB All-Star game, which was moved from Atlanta on Friday because of a controversial voting law.

Smart first brought up the 15-20 minute “skull sessions” in early March before the start of spring practice. He also used terms like “team DNA” and “winning between the ears.” Georgia’s goal, Smart said then, is to hone its mindset and get to know each other better. Senior offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer, for example, learned redshirt freshman offensive lineman Broderick Jones’ nickname during one of the sessions.

Speaking Saturday after his team’s first spring scrimmage, Smart declined to discuss further the impact of the state’s new voting law.

“I try my best to keep my head down and continue to work on our team and what we have to deal with with our players,” he said. “I certainly worry about the mental state of our players and ... the ability to have safe space and open conversations. But I don’t get into the political side of it.”

Getting vaccinated

Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center vaccinated 42 Georgia athletes and coaches March 27, according to a news release issued Friday. Smart is among those who received the first dose on that date or before, along with men’s basketball coach Tom Crean, women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor and athletic director Josh Brooks.

The UGA Athletic Association doesn’t mandate the vaccine, but it’s available for any player who wants it. Football players can make that decision once spring practice ends April 17 at G-Day, Smart said Saturday.

“There’s some benefits and incentives that they’ve laid out with not having to test, not having to contact trace if you get the vaccine,” Smart said. “(Director of Sports Medicine Ron Courson) and his staff are doing a great job of bringing in people familiar with the vaccines … (who) can talk to our team and educate them on the benefit for their families, for the group as a whole and safety purposes. So we’re trying to encourage that.”

Scrimmage boosts inexperienced secondary

The opportunity for young cornerbacks to receive some live action marked one of the highlights of Saturday’s scrimmage at Sanford Stadium.

Other than 6-foot-3, 211-pound senior Ameer Speed, the Bulldogs have zero cornerbacks with significant experience. And even then, Speed really contributed only on defense last year at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati. His primary role has been on special teams.

Georgia must replace Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell and DJ Daniel (NFL draft) along with Tyrique Stevenson (Miami transfer). Speed isn’t technically guaranteed a starting position, but it seems likely at this point. Some other players competing for game reps include redshirt freshman Jalen Kimber, redshirt freshman Kelee Ringo and freshman Lovasea “LC” Carroll, who was recruited as a running back.

“We’re a long way from being ready in terms of what we need to do in the secondary because we just got a lot of inexperienced players,” Smart said. “We cannot have enough of those situations: scrimmage, passing, all the different looks we get. Because we need the experience.”

Updates on Burton and Smith

Smart spoke for the first time Saturday about Jermaine Burton’s injury. The sophomore receiver from California hyperextended his knee at practice Tuesday. Smart said there is no structural damage, which was previously reported by the AJC.

The Bulldogs’ head coach expressed frustration with what he saw as an “overreaction” from the media regarding Burton’s injury.

“Jermaine Burton is going to be fine,” Smart said. “For anybody to report the length of time he’s going to be out, that’s really unfair.”

Burton will be “day-to-day,” Smart said. Redshirt freshman receiver Arian Smith also will be out for an unknown amount of time with a wrist he sprained Saturday.