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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks to members of the press in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall in Athens, Ga., on Monday, Sep., 24, 2018. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)

ATHENS, Ga. — University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed Saturday’s game against Auburn. They offered the following comments during Monday’s media session.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening comments … 

“I’d like to also congratulate Matt (Stinchcomb), who is a close friend, played together with Matt here, and what a great honor bestowed to him and certainly deserves it. He’s having a bright career with the SEC Network, and what a great honor it is to have him representing the University of Georgia Hall of Fame. So appreciate that, and honor to him.

Open up, we’re moving on to Auburn, who we have tremendous respect for. Gus (Malzahn) does a great job with them in practice. Obviously, it’s the first time in a long time, probably ever, that we’ve played them three times, in what really amounts to a calendar year. And these guys have a good football team. When you look at them defensively, they’re loaded up front. They’ve got a lot of big guys. They’ve got a lot of players who play a lot of snaps. I mean they’re experienced across the board.

On their defensive unit, it seems like every guy has been there for three years and played a significant role. And then offensively, I think every time you play one of Gus’s offenses, it’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. He does a lot of misdirections. They come right at you and hit you in the mouth like they did last year. They’ve got really good skill players to take shots with, and they do a great job on special teams, always have. So it’ll be a tremendous challenge for our guys, as they move on from the Kentucky game into this game, and I know our players and our coaches have a lot of respect for the way Auburn plays the game.

I’ll open it up with a couple of the injury stuff. Mecole (Hardman), I think, will be fine. He had an ankle. Probably could have come back in the game. He should be fine today to practice. Lamont (Gaillard) had a hyperextension. He’s going to be limited today, but we think he’ll be fine. We’ll see how he progresses the next couple of days. Ben (Cleveland) continues to progress. Thought he could have played if he had to in the last game. So we hope he continues to get better. I think that’s all of them. If not, I’m sure you guys will ask.”

On if there is still motivation from last year’s regular season game against Auburn … 

“It’s a rivalry game. I mean so many of our kids were recruited by them and so many vice versa. It’s always a rivalry game, and I think that a big part of that is being at your best when your best is needed. And that’s the challenge for our guys. We’re playing at home, at night, in our stadium, which I think is really important to our fans, important to our players to protect our home turf, and we want to put our best effort forward. And certainly going to have to with the challenge they present, because they’ve got a lot of good football players.”

On the play calling in goal-line situations … 

“I really don’t think it’s that. I think we worked really hard on it last week and that’s probably the most frustrating thing is that we didn’t overcome the obstacles we had previously. And it has nothing to really do with play calling. It’s not the maddest I’ve ever been. I was more disappointed in some of the organizational things, not necessarily what we did. Just the way we went about it, and we’ll continue to work on it and get better at it.”

On the extent of celebration for winning the SEC East … 

“Yeah, that’s not a case for us. I mean obviously the locker room, guys were fired up. Guys were excited. I mean I think anytime you play another top-10 team and you have a big win, it’s something to get excited about. These guys worked really hard for a long time. So being able to enjoy that moment and that big game for the trip home, and then Sunday we move on. And it’s onto Auburn, who’s got a really good football team. They get your attention the minute you turn the tape on because they’ve got an experienced quarterback. He’s got an elite arm. They’ve got a lot of really good wideouts. They’re talented, fast, extremely fast. And they’ve got a defense that’s been there forever. So I mean there’s not anybody on our team that’s going to be worrying about anything but Auburn because that’s the next task at hand. That’s what we have to be focused on. Our goal is to play the next team, whoever the next team is, and we don’t try to have real big highs and no real lows. We want to stay right neutral in the middle.”

On if experience with winning the East last year helps with motivation this season … 

“I don’t know if that helps. What helps is playing well, and your play is reflected by your behaviors, which are your actions in practice. And it all boils back down to that. We can make it psychological all we want, but at the end of the day it’s how you work during the week, what are your behaviors in practice, and your behaviors lead to playing better, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now is play better.”

On what was done during the bye week to improve the Georgia running game … 

“We just worked on things we were not doing well. That was a big part of it. I didn’t think we were running the ball well before that either. I mean we had some success before that and we had to improve. We’ve had a lot of young players that are trying to grow up, and they still need to grow up, and we got some guys out there that have played a lot of football that they have to continue to play better. But there was no magic potion. The off week we just work and we tried to work on points of emphasis for each unit.”

On the rhythm between Justin Fields and Jake Fromm … 

“Justin doesn’t have to come in just to run the ball. He’s a talented quarterback. He’s growing as a player. He’s getting better. The more roles we give him to benefit our team, I think it helps us. He’s also 230 pounds, too. So he presents a lot of issues for a defensive unit, and I know that from having to coach against guys like Justin. But he’s a talented player that doesn’t just have to come in the game and run the ball. And I think he and Jake work well together, and if they continue to do that, we’ll use both of them where we see it beneficial.”

On Isaiah Wilson and the job he has done on the offensive line … 

“He’s grown. He’s getting better. I thought last year he got frustrated early and just kept working. Spent some time on the scout team, got better. He still is a work in progress, just like our team is. I mean there’s things that he didn’t do right Saturday. He plays physical. He’s a big man. He’s worked hard to get better. He’s held up against some tough guys in pass pro. I think he takes pride in that. But he’ll be the first to tell you that he didn’t do some things right Saturday in the run game that he’s gotta improve on and that he’s going to play against some really good front guys this week, and when you don’t step with the right foot, you don’t take the right angle, you don’t approach things the right way, these guys can expose you. So he’ll keep working, and hopefully he’ll keep getting better.”

On what’s allowed Elijah Holyfield to mature as a runner throughout the season…

“Probably carries. He’s always been mature. He’s a very mature kid that has worked his tail off when nobody knew him because of the feature backs we had, and we all knew what a workhorse he was. He came down to the scout team and got to see him do it against some really good defense last year. So opportunity is probably what’s presented itself to him.”

On Jeremiah Holloman exceeding expectations and having a prominent role…
“He works. I’ve said it before, he works really hard. He blocks really physical. Everything is important to him, all the details. He’s on the punt return unit that’s one of the better ones in the country. He takes pride in that. He’s a backup on kickoff coverage, backup on punt team. He just works. So the guys that work and play physical and catch the ball when they get the opportunity. He’s taken advantage of some opportunities he’s been presented, like in the Florida game. He took advantage of the opportunities he got last week. But he’s not the only one in that room. There’s a group of young men in that room that do a great job for our run game, for our special teams and then when we get an opportunity to throw it they’re able to take advantage of it.”

On an injury update for Cade Mays and young players that contributed at Kentucky…
“Cade had a little bit of a stinger. He’s probably going to be limited today. And we don’t know how much further it will go. But we expect to get him back. And I know he’s a tough kid and he’ll push through it. But medically Ron (Courson) and them are going to keep him out of some contact today. But, again, he’s tough, competitive, a lot like the rest of our freshman class. He’s working really hard, and those guys as a unit are getting better. It’s not just the freshmen. I say freshmen. I’m talking about redshirt freshmen. But all those guys.

So don’t think of it as last year’s signing class. Look at it as a two-year span of guys that haven’t had significant roles. I think those guys are growing up, getting better, and I said it after the game last week, some guys got in the game that hadn’t been getting in the game, because we have had to use them. They have some attributes that we need, and I’m pleased with those guys’ growth. I just hope the maturity allows them to handle, whether it’s a little success, in the case of Channing (Tindall) or Adam (Anderson) or Brenton (Cox), or a little frustration in the case of somebody that’s not playing as much as they want to. They just have to keep getting better.”

On the legacy of Georgia running backs and their continued success in the NFL, like Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Miche,l and how that contributes to recruiting…

“Yeah. I think it helps tremendously to have the guys, even the history of Robert Edwards, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis, I mean Herschel (Walker), just back after back after back after back. Now it’s probably more prominent than it’s ever been because of the stage that Todd is on and what he’s been able to do and Nick and Sony’s exposure last year through the National Championship game.

I think if you’re a premier back in the country and you say I want to go somewhere that I can learn to play in a pro style, catch the ball in the backfield. I also want to be able to protect so that I can increase my value, and I also want to have durability where I’m not going to be beat up when I come out of there, there’s nowhere better to go. These guys recognize that, and that’s why Dell (McGee) has been able to recruit at a high level.”

On the importance of winning time of possession against Auburn…

“I think it goes back and forth. I think it’s a lot about what kind of team you are. If you have depth defensively, and you think you can withstand those drives, the most important thing becomes ‘Can I get off the field on third down?’ And the Auburn teams have been different over the years, too. They’ve had really fast-scoring ones. They’ve had some long, methodical teams that go on long drives. It’s a lot more important what we do, than what they do, and we have to go execute regardless of what they do. They’ve got some up-tempo stuff, and they do a really good job of it, and you have to go out execute them. You have to go out and be able to play fast, and your kids have to be able to line up. It’s what everybody in college football works on now in the offseason to get ready for.”

On how many underclassmen are playing this year compared to others in Smart’s experience…

“I don’t know statistically. I can’t tell you what the most I’ve ever had play and what the least I’ve ever had play. We’ve got a lot of them in our two-deep, and it’s mainly because I think eight or nine of them came early, so that helped them get acclimated. That certainly had an effect with Cade (Mays) and maybe Trey (Hill) and those guys that came early. They got to get to work earlier. But I can’t tell you. I just know these guys are working hard, and you want to bring good players in your program, but it’s not just getting them here. It’s getting them bought into the principles and values and doing what the seniors want and then buying in and also learning and dealing with the frustration of being away from home. This group is starting to overcome a lot of that and get better as they get more and more experience.”

On how freshman CB Tyson Campbell can develop…

“He’s got a lot to work on. Tyson is a benefactor of a little bit of lack of depth. He’s a benefactor of playing a position that’s not quite as complicated as some of the other freshmen are at. And he’s talented. But he’s grown up. He’ll continue to grow up. When you play opposite Deandre Baker, you’re going to get a lot of attention. And he continues to get a lot of those. And he has to continue to improve and work on a lot of things, whether it’s tackling, eye control, doing his job, knowing the assignment of every play. Because out there sometimes you get away with maybe a wrong technique because you’ve got a guy manned. You can’t get away with that when you’re the linebacker that has to make the call, when you’re the quarterback or the running back that has to protect. You can’t do those things. And he can, and he’s been able to grow, and he has to continue to improve, though.”

On the principles that Auburn has consistently done well under head coach Gus Malzahn…

“Physical. Being able to run the ball. I mean people think it’s all sideways, and when they’ve had elite backs, they’ve really run it well. When they’ve had elite quarterbacks, they’ve really run it well. They’ve got more wideouts now than I remember them having as far as vertical threats and guys that can run and throw the ball down the field and a quarterback that can get the ball to them. I’ve got a lot of respect for the job he does, and they’ve always created a lot of problems because of the tempo and because of the window dressing, and they do all that, but they still run the ball at you.”

On the difference for junior TE Isaac Nauta the past few weeks…

“I really think it’s just opportunities. It’s just his number. It’s not like we call a play and say this play is going to Nauta. I really think the two-minute drive at Florida opened up for him, and they played some coverages that made it easy for him. It wasn’t that he was out there beating somebody in coverage man to man. They didn’t cover him on some. And then they played a soft zone where he got the ball. And he did a good job the other day. He beat a guy across the space that was man-to-man. And I know Jake (Fromm) is very comfortable with those tight ends. And I think Isaac at the end of the day knows the offensive system better. He understands where coverages are. He knows what leverage to take, and he’s taken advantage of some good opportunities.”

#13 Elijah Holyfield | Jr. | TB 

On already clinching the SEC East, knowing how much more you have to play for and still concentrating on the rest of the schedule… 

“It gives us a lot of motivation, but we have a really good team that we are about to play on Saturday and we are looking forward to that.”

On being motivated by last year’s loss to Auburn… 

“We have enough motivation with what we have going this year. We have a chance to play for many more things down the road and we are just looking forward to playing the game Saturday against a good team, executing and playing our best.”

On playing a team like Auburn that you have so much familiarity with… 

“It helps a lot, you know we are very familiar with them. We play them every year and we played them twice last year. We are very familiar with the team and we are looking forward to a good game.”

On how much Georgia’s running back legacy played into your decision to attend UGA… 

“It was a very big deal to me. I have watched Georgia football for a long time and I have always loved all the Georgia backs, starting with Knowshon Moreno and watching Todd and Sony and Nick and then playing with them as well. It had a lot to do with my decision.”

On how much competition within the team figures into Georgia producing good backs… 

“I definitely think that it helps. When you have somebody there that is just as good as you, playing right next to you, it pushes you every single day. I know I can’t take a day off because he isn’t going to take a day off. I think it motivates us.”

#13 Jonathan Ledbetter | Sr. | DE

On facing Auburn’s high-tempo offense and controlling time of possession…

“If you control the ball, you control the game. They’ve got a really fast team and when they get going in the groove, it can hurt a lot of teams, people get tired. They’ve got a lot of defenses that aren’t lined up. You have to be able to stay ready and sustain during times like that. [Time of possession] is definitely crucial. If our offense can stay on the field longer, control the ballgame, they have less time with the ball and we can limit that. If we’re getting three-and-out’s, that means the game is flowing how it needs to be.”

 

On focusing on the next game knowing the team is playing in the SEC Championship …

“Our main goal this week is to focus on Auburn. We clinched the East, that’s great, now it’s back to work, it’s now Monday, and we’re back to the drawing board ready for this week. We’re not worried about anything down the line except Auburn.”

 

On the familiarity of facing Auburn for the third time in a calendar year…

“You’ve got two good football teams playing against each other, competing and playing their hearts out. It’s a physical game, always. It’s one of my favorite games of the season so I’m looking forward to it. I’m always looking forward to a challenge.”

#71 Andrew Thomas | So. | OL

On earning SEC Co-Offensive Lineman Player of the Week… 

“It is a good accomplishment, but I give that to the offensive line as a unit. We rushed for 331 yards and I don’t even think we gave up a sack, so I think it was a good team effort.”

 

On young guys stepping up on offensive line… 

“We knew Trey (Hill) was a talented kid. He has been working hard. When he came into the game, he had a small mishap with the snap, but after that he played very well for a freshman coming in that hasn’t played that much coming in. It is very important that the young guys are able to step up. That is a good thing when we are trying to compete for a National Championship.”

 

On challenges of Auburn defensive line… 

“I know for a fact every year that their front seven is very talented, very physical, and we have to run the ball to win the game, so we’ll be working on that.”

 

On avoiding a slip-up game … 

“Every week we have to come with the same approach. When you become lackadaisical that is when you slip-up as a team. We are working to get better, because we have to win out the rest of the way to be where we want to be.”

 

#20 JR Reed | Jr. | DB

On Auburn’s offense and importance of tempo… 

“There will be a big emphasis this week to handle the tempo on first and second down, because when those guys get third-and-short that is when they like to go really fast…It will be very important this week to communicate well and also watch a lot of film to understand what types of movements and shifts that they do and what our checks will be in and out of those shifts.”

 

On celebration of SEC East Championship… 

“There was a little celebration but we know that winning the East doesn’t mean that much. Winning the East two times in a row is nice, but it is now on to Auburn and the next team after that. We just have to be where our feet are.”

 

On Jeremiah Holloman’s progression … 

“I’m not surprised at all. He has been very good for us even in his freshman year. He is improving. He is a big body receiver. He had a few guys in front of him, but when the opportunity knocked he hit it out of the park and he is shining right now…He and Javon (Wims) are real close friends and he is a big physical guy just like Javon. He might be a little faster too, but I’ll let those two guys handle that.”

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