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

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening comments … 

“As we open up, we’re excited for the opportunity to play in the SEC Championship game. I think it’s a credit to the seniors on this team to be able to go to this game two years back to back, which sometimes can be difficult to do. And it’s an honor to be in it, playing one of the hottest teams in the country, one of the best teams in the country. And we know a lot about them. They know a lot about us. We had a short week last year to prepare for them, so it was kind of a short window, especially when you compare it to what we had to prepare for the first game, the Oklahoma game.

But they’ve got a great team. I don’t think anybody would argue that. They’ve got very few deficiencies in any area, talented quarterback, explosive offense, and first thing you notice when they turn the tape on is how fast and how much they score. And they play some good teams in our conference and they still score a lot of points.

Defensively they’ve gotten better throughout the year, got a really good football team, and we’ll be focused on our team this week and we’ll be working really hard to be at our best, and our best will be needed. We’ll have to play well on special teams, defense and offense and that’ll be our goal.”

On Alabama’s yards per catch compared to some of the earlier Florida teams he faced when he was a player … 

“I think it’s hard to say. Those teams at Florida were a long time ago and they had really good wideouts, elite wideouts and they had good quarterbacks, but their quarterbacks were mostly stable, sitting-in-the-pocket guys. And if you remember, they were come after by a Florida State team that was really aggressive and came after them. The young man we’re playing now can run, can throw, can make the throws, can make the checks. They’ve got really good backs. You don’t think about backs that played at Florida back then. These guys have the complete package. When you look across the board on the offensive unit, there’s not like a glaring weakness there. People say they can’t run the ball. They can run the ball. They’ve got physical O linemen. They’ve got the ability to. They just choose to score faster other ways.”

On doing a better job of kickoff coverage … 

“We have to do a better job. At the end of the day we’ve got a coverage unit —  that it’s our responsibility as coaches —that’s probably falling asleep because of a guy that kicks at a high rate of touchbacks. I mean Rod’s in the 80s or something in touchbacks, or at least he was for a while. And we tried to even cover some against UMass intentionally to get some coverages, and we haven’t done with our coverages. Our hang times by Rod have been tremendous. He’s done a great job of placement of the ball. Just gotta do a better job covering it, and if we can kick it out, kick it out. That’s the key.”

On how much it helps QB Jake Fromm having played Alabama last year … 

“I don’t think it hurts anything. But this year is a different year. The fact that he’s played 11 games, 12 games; I don’t even know how many games he’s played. That has more to do than who we played. The fact he’s played and gotten experience. He’s gone against our defense all spring. He’s gone against our defense all fall, and he goes in all these games and plays. That’s more valuable than just playing Alabama. But the fact that he played against them last year, sometimes that helps. It also helps he had literally two first-round backs that were out there with him as well. And I know one was taken in the second, but he’s a first-round talent. So when you sit there and look at it, you go he had a lot of help. He’ll have a lot of help this year. We’ll have to play well offensively.”

On comparing last year’s National Championship prep to this year’s SEC Championship … 

“That post-season schedule is so different because there was a long layoff. There was a get all your team better, prepare your team. You’re really preparing for three teams, the ones you play and the two you might play. It’s a playoff scenario. So that preparation is very different than this. This would be more similar to just finished a game, we gotta go play an SEC Championship, which is more similar to when we played Auburn last year as far as the schedule goes. Team’s completely different. But we’ll do it like a normal game week. You can’t say this game is, oh, we gotta do something different this game. We gotta go out and be who we are. We gotta go play better and we’ve gotta go continue to improve. We got a bunch of young guys that gotta go compete and play in a big-stage environment.”

On if coaching alongside Coach Nick Saban has helped him understand what he is thinking more than other coaches … 

“You know, I don’t know. I mean I think that there’s going to be similar thinking, so I mean if you argue that there is a benefit from knowing what he’s thinking or what he’s thinking about in a certain situation, then he could say the same, because I certainly was with him long enough to know that in certain situations I have a lot of the same beliefs and thoughts. So I don’t think anybody strategically gained something because you work together for 10 years or you work together for 12 years at different places. I mean football is football. You have to make a decision, you know, what is your strategy on 3rd and 1, what is your strategy on 4th and 4. I don’t think anybody is so predictable that you know that 100 percent. So I don’t think you gain a whole lot from it.”

On if beating his mentor would be special … 

“I really don’t look at it that way at all. It’s not personal for me. I don’t look at it as that at all. It would be gratifying to our players. It would be the next step towards going to the playoffs. And those are the objectives that we want. It’s not — it’s not about me. It’s not about him. It’s not about the fact that we worked together. It’s never about that to me because I don’t see it that way. I see a really good football team on the other side that our guys have earned the right to go play against. And that’s really all it is for me.”

On lessons learned in pass coverage following last year’s National Championship … 

“That lesson was learned the day we installed that defense. I mean when you play cover two and you play halves, you got a guy over the top of another guy and you got a guy in the flat and the guy in the flat should jam and reroute and the guy in the half should be in the half. There’s nothing about that game that you learned because that game came down to more than just that. I mean that’s just what people remember the most. So when we teach that coverage, we teach it the same way we taught it before. We just hope that we do a better job of executing it.”

On the carryover from facing Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the National Championship last year and the differences in his play from then to now…
“He’s improved tremendously. I mean he was really good in that half, but you have to remember, they had two really young linemen in the game. They had a lot of receivers that were playing at that point that were really young that have grown up. Their receiving corps is extremely talented, and they all seemed young then. So now they’re all very experienced, very talented, and he has them at his disposal to make good decisions and put the ball in the right people’s hands, and his decision-making and touch and accuracy is really just off the charts.
And I mean it was in our game last year, too, but now it’s a more experienced version of it. I don’t know that playing against him last year helps any this year. I think it doesn’t have anything to do with it. I think it has to do with both teams this year, because our team is certainly extremely different, especially defensively.”

On Elijah Holyfield’s ability to get to the pylon and how he has exceeded expectations…
“I’ve been very pleased with Elijah (Holyfield). Number one, his leadership more so than his ability to get to the pylons has been tremendous. His work ethic day in and day out. His toughness and his attitude is tremendous. I think both those backs would tell you they benefit from a physical offensive line and a group of receivers that are a threat to catch the ball. So those things help open boxes. When people don’t want to play you one on one, which Alabama will, they open up things for the other guys. And that’s important. But Elijah has been tremendous, and he has a good knack for getting the ball in the end zone. He’s a slasher. He’s not afraid of contact.”

On the injury update of Ben Cleveland and Trey Hill…
“Trey (Hill) is good to go. He was out and about yesterday moving around, so I expect Trey to be fine. Really all those guys. Ben’s (Cleveland) in the same boat he’s been in. You ask about Ben every week. Ben’s fighting to get back. We think Ben’s not 100 percent, but he’s closer to 100 percent than he was yesterday. So we keep trying to get him back and doing all we can to get him back. And then really nothing changed on Cade (Mays) and Monty (Rice) from last night. I don’t know anything else. That’s been less than 24 hours ago.”

On how Georgia’s receivers stack up against Alabama’s…

“I think it’s a tough comparison. I don’t like doing comparisons. I have a lot of respect for Alabama’s wide-outs. I think they’re tremendous. I think they’re probably the best unit we’ve faced. They’re talented, man. They get vertical. They run routes. They stick their feet in the ground and they have a good guy throwing it to them. But so do we. We’ve got a good wide receiver corps; we got a deep wide receiver corps across the board. A lot of guys have stepped up, and Jake allows those guys to make plays. So comparing them, I think it’s hard to say because I’m certainly proud of the way our guys play on special teams and play physical. But their guys are very talented, too.

On what Smart likes about sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm and the receiving corps…

“Timing, balance. They’ve done a good job with the RPO game, done a good job with the vertical passing game. They’ve done a good job connecting, whether it’s press man routes, off man routes. They’re getting better. They throw and catch a lot together. I think Jake has a trust with that group, and they trust him that the ball is going to be there on time. And let’s give them some credit. They run good routes and get open and catch the ball. But none of this happens without protection. And that’s one of the keys to this game is, number one, keeping the quarterback upright because of the number of sacks and disruption they have, but our guys protecting the quarterback well and being able to have balance, because you don’t want to live in third -and–longs against this team.”

On if practice will be inside this week…

“We may be outside just to get out there. But it’s going to depend on the weather. It’s not like it is every other week, where you’d say ‘I want to go outside because we’re playing outside’. We’ll do it based on the weather and whether or not we want to get off the turf for a day. But most of the times we play in a game like this, we’re inside.”

On Alabama’s intimidation factor and Georgia’s awareness of taking Alabama to overtime in January…

“I don’t know that it helps at all. I think the biggest thing is preparing your teams the right way to play and not getting overwhelmed by the moment. If anything, I’ve probably seen more teams lose it in the warmups, just trying to get all amped up and all that. You have to go play your best game. You have to be yourself, and you have to be the best version of you, and you can’t worry about the rest. A lot of those teams that I witnessed that, they didn’t have near as good of players as us either.

So I think when you look at it, you say, ‘Okay, what is the talent level? What is the talent gap?’ They’ve got an extremely talented team. We respect that. But we also have a good football team, and our kids have a lot of pride in performance. They’re not basing that on last year’s, because there are a lot of those kids off that team. I know defensively for us there are very few guys that are back as returning starters. We have a few on offense. But teams are different. Their team’s different, too. It’s two different teams, and the good thing is we both get to go on the field and play.”

On if Smart is still close to anyone on the Alabama staff…

“I’ve still got a lot of good friends in their support staff and the rest of their staff. There’s still guys that I see in the off season and things like that. Probably not as many with the changes they’ve had. I mean that’ll always be the case. I think every team you play, there’s somebody on the coaching staff that I’ve worked with or at least am good friends with, and that’s no different at Alabama.”

On if there is fatigue in answering questions about the connection between Smart and Alabama…

“Not really. I’m more worried about how to stop these wideouts and how to stop the quarterback. I’m not fatigued by this. I’m a lot more concerned with how we’re going to play and where we’re going to play guys and how we’re going to go about doing things. That’s you guys. Those are all your questions. I get it. You all have a job to do, and my job is to answer them.”

On making Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa uncomfortable in the pocket…

“It would be great to do that. It would be awesome to do that. I think if you can disrupt the pocket and get him out – to do that you have to take a lot of chances, and there are some good players back there behind those chances you’re taking. They also have the ability to expose you when you’re not balanced up on the run. I mean, there are similarities between their offense and our offense. They do a really good job offensively of running the ball and putting together run packages. They just don’t have to use them all the time because they’re really explosive. So getting pressure, affecting the quarterback – absolutely that’s critical. But not giving up big plays is, too.”

On if the January meeting with Alabama motivates Georgia…

“I really think to each his own. I mean that’s not a motivating factor for me. That’s not what’s driving me. What’s driving me is the young men in this room that will be here in a couple of hours, trying to do my best job for them, and that’s what my coaching staff has to do. We have to put our guys in the best situation to be successful, and that’s all we’re concerned with, because when you let all the outside forces and the outside motivation control you, sometimes you get emotional and you don’t make the best decisions.

We have to put the best plan together we can to play our best game against Alabama. Not the Alabama last year, not the Georgia last year. So that’s motivation for a lot of people. And that’s the media talk. But for us it’s what do I have to do to play my best game. That’s what I want to work on.”

On leading the nation in allowing the fewest plays of 20 or more yards…

“I think that sometimes can be a misleading stat, but this year our guys have done a good job keeping people cut off and not giving up explosive plays. And you do that by leveraging the ball, and you do that by not busting coverages. You do that by not getting beat man to man, and those are things we have to do every game. It’s not like we have to do it this game. We have to do it every game. But along with that we have to do a good job of affecting the quarterback, and sometimes that exposes you to more risk and you have to go play better.”

On the matchup with Alabama junior tight end Irv Smith…

“He’s talented. He’s extremely fast. When you look across the personnel board, they have a plethora of guys that are talented skill players. I think their backs are underrated. They have unbelievable backs. They can catch the ball out of the back field. They can do all kinds of things, but Irv Smith is a matchup problem. He’s talented, a really talented guy. And he’s a good player and good blocker.”

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#94 Michael Barnett | Jr. | DT

On how different is Tua Tagovailoa than some of the other quarterbacks you have faced … 

“He has really become a student of the game. After last year, he has really come in and knows his receivers and their tendencies. He really reads defenses well and is truly a student of the game. He really understands what they are trying to execute on offense.”

On how hard is it to keep this week just like any other week recognizing there is a lot at stake … 

“I feel like we just need to have a lot of tunnel vision this week and try not to buy into the media. We just need to focus on what we have, it is just another football game. There is a lot at stake but once we realize it is just another football game and execute what we are supposed to do I think we will be fine.”

#11 Jake Fromm | So. | QB 

On keeping emotions in check during such a big week … 

“It is a big week, but we have had twelve weeks like this before. It comes down to the process and preparing just like we have for every other game. It is what it is. We have our process, we have gotten it down so we just plan to continue to do that and see how it works out.”

On being more comfortable in these situations compared to last year as a freshman … 

“I know what is going on. I know the trip to Atlanta and what the environment is going to be like. Playing in big games is fun and what you dream of. I am ready to go out and go get it.”

On his relationship with Tagovailoa …

“Yeah. Tua and I are really good friends. He is an awesome competitor, a really great football player and a great follower of Jesus. We met during the Elite 11 process when we were seniors in high school and our relationship kind of took off from there.”

On the importance of what Georgia is able to do in the run game … 

“That is big. It is huge. A big, physical run game not only helps open up the pass game, it helps late in the game, it helps control the clock, it helps the defense. A good running game really just helps play football. That is what we want to come out and do on Saturday and really just control the momentum of the game.”

#13 Elijah Holyfield | Jr. | TB

On how the back field has grown in 2018…

“I feel like all of us have done a really good job this year and I feel like we’ve gotten better throughout the year. This is the time to really make yourself a name.”

 

On looking forward to another shot at Alabama…

“The whole year, we’re just trying to get back to the SEC Championship; it wasn’t really who we play, we just wanted to get back there. I think more than anything this year, we’re just trying to focus on this game. Last year has nothing to do with this next game coming up.”

 

#13 Jonathan Ledbetter | Sr. | DE

On the progression of the defense this season…

“From the top of the roster all the way down to the bottom, it doesn’t matter who you’re going to put out there, we wanted to have a physical defense, one that runs around … and that’s really starting to form. As you can see these last couple games, everyone is hungry to get on the field, it doesn’t matter who’s out there getting on the ball.”

 

On keeping this a normal week and tuning out the noise…

“I feel like you have to tune things out, but people don’t realize it’s just football. As you get later on down the road, you play the better teams, and this is what you’ve been waiting on, this is what you’ve been working for all year, so you don’t have to blow it out of proportion, just treat it regularly, keep your nerves where they are. I think once you can do that, it shows your maturity as a team and where you are and where you’re going to go.”

 

On lessons learned and motivation after the National Championship game…

“It helps you grow up. Like I said, those tight games come down to inches. At the least, very, very small inches at the end of the game or even throughout the game. You just have to seize those opportunities and make sure that they’re in your favor and not the other team. You really just have to do whatever you want and whatever you can to make sure they come your way.”

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