Expectations always high for Bulldogs
HOOVER, Ala. — Kirby Smart knew the stakes would always be high, with the expectations to match, when he took over as head coach at his alma mater Georgia in 2016.
Smart’s Bulldogs will have the bull’s-eye squarely on their backs entering his second season in Athens, as Georgia was a narrow pick by league media to slip past Florida and claim the SEC East title.
Smart made it clear he knows what Georgia fans expect
during his turn at SEC media days last week.
“When you come to the University of Georgia, the expectation is to win championships,” Smart said.
“That’s what we expect to do at the University of Georgia, and that’s the standard we’ll be held to.
“For me it’s important that you understand that as the head coach of the University of Georgia. I’m proud to be there, but we embrace those as a coaching staff, we embrace those as players.”
The Bulldogs had a series of excruciating losses in Smart’s debut season, as freshman quarterback Jacob Eason went through growing pains. Georgia lost 34-31 against Tennessee on the final play on a Hail Mary pass, lost 17-16 at home to Vanderbilt and fell 28-27 against Georgia Tech at home. The Bulldogs were also flattened 45-14 at Ole Miss and lost to Florida (24-10) for the third year in a row and the 14th time in the past 19 meetings.
Eason, a 6-5 sophomore, should be markedly improved for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and he has perhaps the top tailback tandem in the SEC in the backfield with seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Chubb and Michel are fast friends, but they said they made their decisions to return for their senior seasons independently and without the knowledge of the other’s choice.
“I didn’t know he was coming back; he didn’t know I was coming back,” Michel said.
“We compete in every way, and I know he’s chasing everything he can get and I’m fighting for it,” said Chubb, who rushed for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns last season while admittedly still not 100 percent after undergoing knee reconstruction surgery in 2015.
“I know I’m working hard, pushing my body and trying to get back to where I once was,” Chubb said.
Michel ran for 840 yards and four touchdowns, and his 5.5 yards per carry outpaced Chubb’s 5.0 yards per carry.
Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2014, enters the year with 3,424 rushing yards — second in the Georgia record books behind Herschel Walker (5,259) — 29 rushing touchdowns and a career average of 6.4 yards per carry.
“I was surprised, just to know a guy like him, who probably could have been drafted high, coming back and wanting to give it all for Georgia,” Michel said of his backfield buddy.
Georgia has been picked to win the SEC East four times in the past six years. The Bulldogs came through in the top spot in 2012, but they didn’t do it when picked first in 2013 and 2015.
One of Georgia’s biggest struggles in 2016 was the inability to rely on the running attack in some of their toughest games. Vanderbilt stopped a critical fourth and 1 in the fourth quarter of its victory between the hedges and Georgia’s short-yardage run game had other failures.
“We always want to be a downhill team. We just didn’t do it effectively, I guess,” Chubb said before bringing up the Bulldogs’ focus in the spring. “So we kind of pushed ourselves and got the big boys up front moving faster, got us running the ball harder and everything just came into play.”
Chaney, the former Tennessee and Arkansas offensive coordinator, plotted in
the spring to improve Georgia’s running game to keep a little pressure off Eason. Smart said he wants the offense to be more open this season.
“We’re certainly happy to have those rushers back, but we have to create space for those guys and run the ball better, be more productive so we can open up the passing game,” Smart said. “He needs that help, and Jacob has been a guy that has openly admitted he’s super happy to have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel coming back.
“And I hope Jacob can open up that part of the offense and be able to expand it and open some things for Nick and Sony. That’s one of the big things for them coming back, was to be able to open that offense up and let those guys have more space.”
The Bulldogs bring back both starting guards — Lamont Gaillard and Isiah Wynn — along with fullback Christian Payne, the top tight end duo of Jeb Blazeovich and Issac Nauta, and wideouts Terry Godwin and Michael Chigbu.
Defensively, second-year coordinator Mel Tucker has a wealth of returning talent, including all four starting linebackers in Davin Bellamy, Natrez Patrick, Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, and defensive backs Deandre Baker, Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis.
Smith recorded 95 tackles, including five for lost yardage, last season.
“He’s done wonders for our defense because he’s a student of the game, but more importantly he helps lead those guys,” Smart said after comparing Smith’s skills to former Alabama standout C.J. Mosley.
“It definitely means a lot having a lot of guys coming back,” Smith said. “It gives us the opportunity to actually go to the next level. Them choosing to come back gives us a chance to compete for a championship. They pretty much know that the defense is going to be really good this year.”
Georgia takes on a challenging schedule, with an opener against traditional Southern Conference power Appalachian State, followed by a road trip to Notre Dame.
Smart acknowledged the Bulldogs’ tough slate and yet he said he still understands what is expected of Georgia.