ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs worked out for a little over two hours on Tuesday afternoon in preparation for their SEC opener this Saturday at home against 17th-ranked Mississippi State.
Following are comments from head coach Kirby Smart, as well as selected Georgia players:
‘’It was a little bit warm out there. The kids started out well and some of them ran out of gas toward the end. We got a lot of reps. I thought it was a physical practice, which we needed because they’re (Miss. State) a very physical team. But we’ve got a lot to improve on, they’ve got a hard quarterback to defend and they’ve got a big front. So, we’ve got a lot of challenges this week. I’m excited about where the team is and I’m looking forward to finding out how our guys respond to playing a team that’s big and physical, kinda similar to us.’’
How much of a measuring stick is this game in terms of where your team is right now?
‘’I think it will be a similar measuring stick the following eight weeks. I really don’t think there’s anybody really clear-cut head-and-shoulders above in the SEC, probably outside of Alabama. And then you’ve got everybody that can play everybody. So we’re going to find out. Thing is, regardless of the outcome, we’ve got a big one coming up next week. So that’s what we know and we’re really looking at it day-by-day we’re trying to get better, trying to get every player on our team a little bit better. A little bit better on special teams, a little bit better on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.’’
Do you see that every day, that improvement you are talking about?
‘’You don’t see it every day. I see it in small movements. Some players get better every day and some players don’t. Some players regress. I think the hardest thing right now is the group of true freshmen who maybe aren’t playing a lot. They’re just playing a little. It’s really hard for them to focus and get better because they don’t think they’re going to play. They’re a play away, like Jake Fromm was, from being in there. I don’t think you can get that across to them. A lot of times it takes actually getting thrown into the fire to realize how important practice is.’’
How much have Jacob Eason and Malkom Parrish been able to do in practice the past two days?
‘’Jacob is throwing the ball, done some drops. He got to take some reps. Y’all got to see him throw a little bit out there. Malkom has done probably 30 to 40 percent of a normal workload. He does all of ‘indy’. He takes a lot of reps in practice. I say a lot, but I mean more than he was taking before. But he’s taking about 30 to 4 percent of the reps that he’d normally take. We’ve got him on kind of a pitch count. He had 16 plays yesterday. He had about 30 or 40 plays today and we’ll try to keep increasing that.’’
When Jacob Eason is cleared to play, will he return to his starting job?
‘’I don’t know that that’s a fair question. I think the question is, No. 1, what is ‘cleared to play’? Is that 100 percent healthy or is that emergency backup? I think a lot of that is determined by how Fromm is playing. We’ll make that decision when the time comes. It’s not like we’re going to sit here and make an ultimatum. It’s going to come as his health improves.’’
How important is the matchup with (MSU defensive lineman) Jeffery Simmons and your guards?
‘’He’s a very disruptive player. I mean, he’s probably one of the best inside players in the entire SEC, if not the country. I recruited him out of high school, remember him well. Great player. So he’s very disruptive. As far as matchups, we’ll have one person on him, we’ll have another person on him. If we pull somebody, it might be somebody else. It could be anybody on him. The most important thing is that we use good technique, keep your pad level down and outwork him. But he’s a really good player and he is extremely disruptive. So you’ve got to find ways to block him, find ways to get away from him.’’
D.J. Looney is on the staff at Mississippi State. What kind of dynamic does that create when someone there knows your personnel?
‘’Everybody knows our personnel. They’ve got tape and they watch tape. What does he know that Todd Grantham doesn’t know? I honestly don’t think that there are any secrets. What we’ve put on tape, in all of our games last year and this year, is the same thing Looney saw the whole time he was here. I’m extremely happy for D.J. Looney. I think he’s a great coach, great recruiter. He did nothing but work his tail off while he was here, and he got a great opportunity to go back to his alma mater and coach.’’
Based on what you’ve seen so far, what do you make of the SEC, compared to other years you’ve been in it?
‘’I don’t have to make anything of it. I know what this league’s made of. I mean, it’s trench warfare. It’s every week, buddy. You’d better get ready because I promise you everybody you play has good players, good coaches, good fan bases. I mean, everybody can say, ‘it’s up, it’s down, it’s parity.’ They can say whatever they want. When you come in this league and play, you find out real quick that it’s physical week in and week out.’’
How do you feel about your passing game, how it’s developing and particularly being able to get downfield?
‘’We throw it deep every day in practice. We’ve got receivers that can win vertical patterns. We’ve got quarterbacks that can throw vertical patterns. We’ve got to win against their guys. At the end of the day, you’ve got to open it up some. You’ve got to loosen the box some. You’ve got to block their guys. We’ve got to be able to run and throw. Same as last year. We’ve got a freshman quarterback that I think is playing good. We’ve got to go out there and let him play. He’s got to make good decisions, but it’s not just about a vertical passing game. It’s about blocking somebody at 6 technique. It’s about blocking Jeffery Simmons when you call that vertical passing game. There’s a lot that goes into it, more than just chuck it deep.’’
How did the process play out with Rodrigo Blankenship becoming the kicker?
‘’Rod has been nothing but positive. Rod’s one of the best teammates on this team. He sits right there in that seat (pointing to front row) in every team meeting, and he’s on the edge of his seat. He’s so excited to be a part of this program. He’s done nothing but work his tail off. So I was very happy to be able to reward him on what he’s done.’’
Regarding Rodrigo’s success on kickoffs, is it more of technique or of working with (strength coach) Coach Sinclair?
‘’I’ll be honest with you. I couldn’t tell you. I think his dad’s had a lot to do with it. He came out here and worked hard in the offseason. He felt like he got stronger through the weight room some. But some of it, he changed his approach. I know his dad worked with him on it. I know he felt much more comfortable about it and had more competition. He raised his competition level up to beat the competition.’’
Cameron Nizialek has had a good start to the season. What are the advantages of having a good punter?
‘’It flips the field position, man. I mean, it’s just obvious. Number one, he gets it off fast. Number two, he’s been consistent. Number three, he just changes the field position. He’s had a couple of punts that were bombs. But we measure punts by hang time. You guys measure them by yards. So if you kick it 63 yards in three seconds, that’s not good. So we look for hang and distance to match. He’s done that probably, but twice he hasn’t. And if not for Jayson Stanley, Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith, some of those may get returned. So it’s a combination of punt and coverage. But it’s obviously better than it was last year. We have to keep that up, though, and the coverage concerns me. It’s not necessarily his kicking. It’s making sure we are covering, because Mississippi State is really good at holding people up.’’
What’s the thing that really stands out to you about Mississippi State’s defensive line?
‘’Get off. Size. I mean, they’re relentless. They play a lot of guys. They get off hard. They’ve got something like 20 guys on the roster from the Mississippi jucos that are really good players. They’ve got great size, great length. They bat balls. They’re a good defensive line, man.’’
How difficult is it to find and evaluate kickers and punters?
‘’It’s a hard evaluation process because you don’t really ever know. I was at Alabama for 10 years and we didn’t always get it right. We thought we had a great one and then he wasn’t. You never know. With him (Nizialek) we knew he was free. He didn’t cost us anything. He’s a grad school transfer that walked on. Great for him. He did an unbelievable job and he’s won a job. He saw an opportunity and he seized it. To be honest with you, I never saw him kick at Columbia. He came to a game and said, ‘I want to come to Georgia.’ I said, ‘Oh, you punted there last year. Great, come on. We’d love to have you.’ There’s no loss of value for us, and look what we got out of it. Coach (Shane) Beamer and Coach (former coach James) Vollono were the guys that he had a relationship with, the guys he reached out to. So we kinda fell into that one.’’