Bill Shanks

Patience is required to see improvement in Athens

Kirby Smart, right, went 7-5 in his first regular season as Georgia’s head coach.
Kirby Smart, right, went 7-5 in his first regular season as Georgia’s head coach.

Kirby Smart is not Nick Saban, and Smart is not Mark Richt. That was easy to figure out in Smart’s first season as Georgia’s head coach.

Unfortunately, the Georgia fan base wants Smart to be a little bit of both. The frustration of a 7-5 season is laying right at Smart’s doorstep, as we all try to figure out what kind of coach he will be for this program.

It was OK to be optimistic about Georgia’s season. Alabama wasn’t on the schedule. The Bulldogs had Tennessee at home, and the SEC East looked winnable for any team that had decent talent. Even with a first-year head coach and a freshman quarterback, having a solid season was not out of the question.

But the old saying “you are what your record says you are” came true for Georgia. The Bulldogs lost three close home games, by three points to Tennessee on a heartbreaking last-second touchdown pass, and then two, one-point losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.

And those five points were the difference between a 7-5 season and a 10-2 season.

Maybe if everything had fallen into place perfectly, Georgia would have won 10 games. If it had covered Jauan Jennings in the final seconds against Tennessee, or if Nick Chubb had run the fourth-down play against Vanderbilt instead of Isaiah McKenzie or if Jacob Eason had not thrown the interception on second down when the Bulldogs needed to run and eat the clock against Georgia Tech.

That’s what happens when a team loses close games. You think of things that could have been done differently.

The expectations for Georgia should not have been high for this season. Not many first-year head coaches come in and win immediately, particularly when there is work to do to get better. Usually, when there is a freshman quarterback, there is an adjustment period.

Beyond that, Georgia didn’t have a good offensive line. When Tyler Catalina can walk in from Rhode Island and be handed a starting offensive tackle job, you know there are issues. It just wasn’t a good offensive line of scrimmage.

Everything must get better. Smart told us when he took over last year the lines of scrimmage needed work. Not sure how many people listened to him, but Smart was right. Eason needs to get much better, and maybe competition from Houston County’s Jake Fromm will only help Eason. The receivers must stop dropping passes and get better.

Smart must get better. He had to learn a lot in his first year. No matter how much experience he got under Saban as a defensive coordinator at Alabama, there’s nothing like being in charge. Smart maybe learned that the hard way this season.

He needs to be better with the media. Smart was cocky at times, for no reason. What has he done to be standoffish with reporters? Nothing, really. He’s not Saban, who has done so much in his career he can do whatever he wants. Smart? Not so much, at least not yet.

Smart needs to reach out to his fan base. I’m not asking him to be Richt, who was loved by his fans. But whether Smart likes it or not, fraternizing with the fan base is part of his job. He needs to let them see him, to know a bit more about him so they’ll realize he is also a good guy. NFL coaches don’t have to worry about that, but college coaches do.

Some wonder if Georgia should have searched a bit more for a replacement for Richt, instead of just handing it to Smart. That’s what happens when you go 7-5 in your first season — people question your ability.

Smart was the man for the job. He served his time preparing for the opportunity, much more than when Ray Goff was picked to replace Vince Dooley. Forget about those ridiculous comparisons. Goff was much younger and had much less experience than Smart.

Fans don’t want to read this, but patience is required. There was a reason Richt was fired. The Bulldogs need to get to another level, and you must give Smart much more than 12 games to prove he can do the job.

But Smart must simply improve, just like every part of the program he runs. He needs time to become his own man, his own coach, instead of having people think he’ll be as good as his mentor or not as good as his predecessor.

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