Georgia is a 31-point favorite against Middle Tennessee. But by the looks of practice, you might think the Bulldogs were preparing to play a top-ranked opponent.
Georgia was in the midst of simulating defensive plays against a scout team and head coach Kirby Smart stood at the line-of-scrimmage. He was consistently yelling in the ears of his young defensive backs, and once the ball snapped, Smart ran with the rest of them.
“I don’t have any patience,” Smart said to sophomore cornerback Mark Webb Jr. “You messed up. Reload.”
And so the play was run again, and Smart wasn’t finished until it was to his liking — which was nothing less than perfect.
It’s the standard that has defined the new era of Georgia football under the third-year head coach. Smart never stops.
As he began a media availability before the season opener against Austin Peay, Smart said: “All right, let’s hurry this up. I have tape to go watch.”
The first word that comes to mind from fans, recruits and players is “relentless.”
“He has a mentality of good not being good enough,” senior inside linebacker Natrez Patrick said. “He doesn’t allow us to get comfortable. That’s the difference of those who do well and those who don’t.”
Smart’s mentality is all-encompassing and starts with his strength — recruiting. Georgia had a record of top-10 recruiting classes throughout the years, but getting the No. 1 ranking is 2018 reached a new level.
If a recruit is a must-have to Smart, he’s sure to get him and will go to any length. In fact, Georgia spent $36,651 on helicopter trips to meet prospects in January.
“He projects his vision of how much greater UGA can be,” said four-star tight end Ryland Goede out of Kennesaw Mountain. “His greatest tool is the success they’re having.”
Smart has titles as a coordinator at Alabama and has the rings on his hand, but his name isn’t attached to them.
Smart was once oh-so-close to his own championship, and it’s now what he craves. The never-settle and nearly-crazed mentality has brought Georgia to a place it hasn’t seen in nearly 40 years. A national power — with longevity.
“It’s wanting to be the best,” Smart said. “I’m all in at whatever I do — whether it be golf, checkers or football. You want to give all you’ve got.”
Added Kurt Hunter, a Georgia fan who responded to The Telegraph on Twitter: “I feel like a championship is a reality now. It’s not just what I hoped and dreamed of as a kid.”
This feeling was best illustrated in Georgia’s 41-17 win over South Carolina — a game some expected the Gamecocks to win with control of the SEC East at the hand.
The recent losses at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2012 and 2014 served as credible examples of a so-called trap game under former head coach Mark Richt, but this was different. The Bulldogs dominated.
“We talked about trusting your training,” Smart said in the post-game news conference. “Trust the fact that you practice in the heat every day. Trust the fact that we make it very demanding, so the game is easier. If you trust your training, then you’ll overcome a lot.”
After many years of head-shaking losses for Georgia fans, change was evident last year after a 41-0 win at Tennessee and a 42-7 rout of Florida.
Smart had the blueprint after nine seasons at Alabama as one of the nation’s best coordinators, but the buy-in didn’t take place in his first season at Georgia. A five-loss season was the consequence. Then it clicked.
“It was definitely a process,” Patrick said. “Once we found out it worked, it was a no-brainer. We all wanted to hop on board.”
Smart’s intensity is never-ending. If practice doesn’t go as planned, there’s no hesitancy to restart. Each practice is intentionally tougher than the games — for one reason.
That reason is Georgia’s desire to “physically dominate,” in the words of Smart, its opponent each Saturday. For those who played under Richt, it was a drastic culture change. But seeing the coveted ring made it easier. Now it’s in their grasp.
“He has a track record,” junior defensive tackle Julian Rochester said of Smart. “You can’t tell a guy no when he’s got all of that. You just follow along.”
Once Smart’s players bought in and the team got some key wins, Georgia Athletics Director Greg McGarity had to follow suit. Smart was granted a seven-year, $49-million contract extension on May 3, which makes Smart the third-highest paid coach in the SEC. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher are the only coaches paid more.
“Kirby is following through with his plan and vision,” McGarity said in a phone interview with The Telegraph. To watch this unfold, it’s very gratifying.”
As Georgia hopes to hoist a trophy, the intense preparation for a Conference USA team makes sense. A win gets Smart a step closer, and the vision is undeterred.
“I certainly coach from the beginning whistle to the end whistle exactly the same,” Smart said. “All the time. I don’t think the scoreboard matters. I believe in what we tell our players, which is playing to that standard.”