ATHENS, Ga. — The second time around for Kirby Smart starting up preseason practices as Georgia’s head coach doesn’t quite have the rather large issues confronting him.
Sure, Smart Monday reeled off some of the most important areas to tackle in the weeks ahead: getting better on special teams, improving the passing game, identifying the best offensive linemen and fixing red zone offense.
There isn’t uncertainty about who the starting quarterback will be like last year when Jacob Eason began the season as the backup.
The running back situation is one of the best in the country with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, each who have 1,000-yard rushing seasons, back as seniors. Last year Chubb was just returning from a significant knee injury and Michel was coming back from a broken forearm.
The defense has 10 starters returning from an 8-5 team. Those pesky bus rides over to South Milledge to practice are a thing of the past now that the indoor practice facility has been functioning for a half a year.
“It’s a different set of problems, a different set of issues,” Smart said before the team held its first practice late Monday afternoon. “I think every college football team has those questions but they change year-to-year. …Now, the running back thing is the last question right now. I mean, knock on wood, you’ve got to stay healthy but we have running backs, so it’s how do you use these guys and how do we get these guys the ball with efficiency and throw the ball and catch the ball, because they can run the ball. That’s not the question. The question is can we get them in situations where we have successful box count numbers to help them.”
Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of all that experienced talent on defense and sprinking in talent from the nation’s No. 3 rated recruiting class.
“I know we have the pieces here to be something special,” junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “We just can’t get complacent.”
Lorenzo Carter, the senior outside linebacker, wants to end Georgia’s championship drought.
It last won the SEC in 2005 and the SEC East in 2012.
“I need to win something, man. I finished high school with four rings,” said Carter, who won football and basketball championships at Norcross and Whitefield Academy. “Just coming here to Georgia and having the legacy of the ‘G,’ it’s been a minute. It’s been a minute since Athens has had something to celebrate. That’s it. I’m trying to come back and give people a reason to be happy.”
Georgia is the SEC East favorite, but the team that began the season as the perceived frontrunner has won the division just once in the last seven seasons and has fallen short of Atlanta each of the last four seasons.
Tennessee in 2016, Georgia in 2015 and 2013 and South Carolina in 2014 failed to live up the expectation of being the East pick by the media. Georgia in 2012 is the only team since 2009 that held serve on being the favorite.
Two years ago in what turned out to be Mark Richt’s last season as Bulldogs coach, Georgia started 4-0, but had a disastrous October.
It started by being wiped out by Alabama at home 38-10, included losing a three-touchdown lead at Tennessee in a 38-31 loss in which it lost Chubb for the season to a knee injury on the first offensive play and then had the Faton Bauta experiment blow up on them in a 27-3 loss to Florida. The Bulldogs finished 5-3 in the SEC, two games behind the Gators.
Senior offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, who started every game in 2015, senses this time around won’t be the same.
“It’s just a different vibe,” he said. “We’ve got new plays and new faces. It’s all just a different feeling.”
If Georgia players are believing the hype, Georgia coaches have plans to challenge the team during camp.
“We’ve been talking about being demanding, being physical,” Smart said. “These practices are not easy. The idea is to create adversity for your team, find out who the leaders are.”
Smart said even with all of those starters back on defense, how good are they really? He mentioned the secondary.
“We’ve got guys back, but how well do those guys play,” he said. “Do they play to the standard of what University of Georgia is? I don’t think so. I can’t sit here and say we play to the level of expectation that a secondary should play to.”
Wynn said being picked to win the East doesn’t matter one way or the other.
“We’re still going to go out and ball, regardless,” he said.