Ex­pec­ta­tions al­ways high for Bull­dogs

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

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.



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