Kirby Smart wasn’t thinking about the future as Georgia prepared to kick off against South Carolina on Nov. 4, 2017.
He just knew that his No. 1 Bulldogs had a chance to make a play early. On the opening kickoff, Georgia executed an onside kick in an attempt to catch the Gamecocks by surprise.
The move failed, as South Carolina recovered the kick. But the move, and its message, still resonates with a program that has since grown into a national powerhouse.
The Bulldogs were undefeated and playing their first game as the nation’s top-ranked team since 2008. However, Smart still went aggressive against a squad Georgia was handily favored to beat.
“We’re not going to sit back and play on our heels and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take your best shot,’” Smart said after the game. “We want to give you our best shot.”
Safety J.R. Reed put it even more succinctly on that November afternoon, saying the Bulldogs want to be the “hunters” instead of the hunted.
Two years, 21 wins, one SEC championship and a near-miss at a national title later and Reed, now a senior, still preaches the same message to the Georgia defensive backs.
“You don’t have to be attacked, you can be doing the attacking,” Reed said Monday. “We apply that to defense and our havoc rate.”
Smart echoed his senior safety, saying that sentiment still plays into his coaching decisions even with all the success of the past two years.
“We want to be the hammer and not the nail, and that’s how we go about things,” Smart said. “If we think something’s there, whether it’s starting the game off against South Carolina two years ago, or it’s fourth down and 1, it doesn’t matter. If we think it’s there and we think we’ve got an advantage we always try to look.”
The message has evolved a bit over Smart’s time in Athens. Players now constantly reference the “Georgia standard,” something senior receiver Tyler Simmons said coaches drill into the players’ heads relentlessly. After going over opponents’ scouting reports, the players are reminded that the most important thing is that they improve themselves through that week of practice leading up to the game.
However, there’s no denying this program has changed dramatically since that 2017 game against the Gamecocks. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 at the time, but they had yet to actually win anything under Smart.
Now, they have a pair of SEC East titles to go along with the 2017 SEC Championship. They won the 2017 Rose Bowl before losing to Alabama in the national championship game. If not for another collapse against the Crimson Tide in last year’s SEC title game, the Bulldogs would have made their second straight College Football Playoff.
But at this point, the hunter mentality comes natural, according to Simmons. It’s emphasized so much that the players have no choice but to adopt it.
“You’re just looking toward the future and what you can do to get better and improve this team, improve this organization and bring back the Georgia standard,” senior defensive lineman Michael Barnett said.
Will Smart start this Saturday’s game with an onside kick? Probably not. But if he saw a chance, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t make the aggressive play again.
Even though they’ve become a fixture at the top of the rankings, Smart and his Bulldogs aren’t going to take anything from anyone.
“We want to keep pressure on the other team,” Smart said. “You keep pressure on the other team by looking for strengths of yours or weaknesses of theirs that you think you can take advantage of. But we always try to be the hunter and not the hunted.”