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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart during the Bulldogs' session on the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Photo by Steven Colquitt)

ATHENS, Ga. —  University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs and Commodores kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT in Nashville, Tenn. 

On Monday, Coach Smart, junior quarterback Jake Fromm, senior tight end Charlie Woerner and senior defensive back J.R. Reed offered the following comments. 

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening statement … 

“Welcome guys. We are excited to get prepared for Vanderbilt. We started Friday on Vanderbilt, and we have a lot of respect for Derek (Mason) and the program that he has put together. He and I got to spend some time together in the offseason and I really enjoy the time spent with him. He is a defensive-minded guy like myself. I’ve got a lot of respect for the way he runs his program. 

They have some really elite players returning offensively. When you look at what they’ve got coming back, the tight end that leads the country in returning receptions; a back that has as many or more 10-yard carries as D’Andre Swift and is also the SEC leading returner in yards. They have a receiver — Kalija Lipscomb — that seems like he has been playing there forever. Every time we have had to play them, I thought he was a very good wideout. So, they have a really good player at every level. You look at what they have been able to do defensively. Derek prides himself on being able to stop the run and control the run. You look at last year’s game — and I don’t think a lot of people really realized how close a ball game that was, especially early. They held us to our lowest rushing total in the first half of the season. They outrushed us 90-something to 50-something in the first half and did a really good job doing so by creating a lot of issues for the run game. I have a lot of respect for the way their players play and the program he runs. We are looking forward to opening up in Nashville.” 

On the challenge of Vanderbilt’s quarterback situation and scouting Riley Neal and Deuce Wallace … 

“Well, both. We have seen him (Neal) be able to play there (at Ball State). We have cutups there. Some of our coaches here recruited him out of high school and are aware of him. We have a little bit of footage of each one, really. I have been there before on the quarterback situation, so I know how it goes and being able to manage it. We expect to be able to see both of those guys. If one of those plays the whole game, it probably means he is playing well, and if we see both of them — they might be telling both of them they can play — but we have to prepare for both, be ready to face both. It’s not going to be as much about those guys as it is the guys around them because the guys around them are really good players. They will be as good as we face at those three positions this season.”

On havoc rate … 

“I would not ever say you feel good about it. I don’t sit before the first game and feel certain about anything. You watch openers and you just realize there are so many things that you can prepare for but you are not prepared for. Havoc rate has been a really big deal for us, and that comes in a lot of forms. I think a lot of people expect to see more people coming. That is not necessarily the case. We are trying to create tackles for a loss, pass breakups and interceptions. That does not necessarily mean more pressure. Havoc does not equal pressure. Havoc equals having an ability to get a hand on the ball, to bat a ball, to cause a turnover — to do those things. Our guys have really emphasized it, but we haven’t done it. Until you have actually gone out there and done it, I don’t feel comfortable saying we are going to have a higher havoc rate until we do it. So, we have to go out and execute it and play with really quick explosiveness upfront — not just catch blocks, but try to disrupt. That is what we are trying to do.” 

On the challenge of opening a game on the road and how well Georgia fans travel … 

“Our fans do a wonderful job traveling. When you get an opportunity for a three-day weekend and it involves Nashville — their fans will be the same way ours are — it’s a tough ticket right now because people want to go. People want to go to Nashville. It’s a place they enjoy going. Their fans are the same way. It’s a limited number of seats all together compared to most SEC stadiums, so it will be a tough ticket to get, and it should be that way. Our players are excited about playing in that kind of atmosphere against a really good football team. I think it is very different when you open with a conference team because of the enormous amount of pressure that comes. Are you going to execute in the moment because your margin of error is reduced drastically compared to opening with a school that might not be a Power-5 program or something. You have to be organized, you have to be detailed, you have to focus and you have to be unselfish. We talk a lot about that with our players that only 70 guys are going. There are going to be some guys sitting at home that are really good football players for us.” 

On opening on the road against a SEC team compared to the last few seasons at home … 

“The preparation of being on the road for us is we are always worried about crowd noise regardless of where we play. That happens to us defensively at home. So, we go against each other and we just put crowd noise on so everybody is preparing the same. As far as traveling, the biggest thing is the new guys — the freshmen who have not gone on a road trip with a college program and may not know the demeanor with which we travel, the demeanor with which we do walk-throughs, how we handle ourselves at the hotel. A lot of our leaders have to handle that. You find out a lot about guys. We have a lot of guys who haven’t had their feet in the fire that will get to have that. You try to simulate that in scrimmages, but there’s only so much you can do. We try to make scrimmages as tense as possible to create that feeling, but ultimately we will find out a lot about our team.” 

On the first game being a tone-setter for the season … 

“It’s been both ways. I do not think at all that you can take the first game and say that it defines you. It doesn’t define you. Win or lose, it is not going to define you. What’s going to define you is how you respond. I do think the narrative is set a lot  of times off the first game, especially if it is a nationally-televised game and you are out there playing a quality conference opponent who we think is a really good program and a really good team. The narrative can be spun afterwards — ‘well the expectation was this and this happened.’ Like you said, either way — positive or negative — they are going to try to spin it. For us it is about the facts and being really technical. We try to improve on the things that we don’t do well and try to get better every where we can — get a lot of guys experience. That, unfortunately, is the downfall of playing a road conference game is you don’t get to take players so they get that experience of traveling on the road because you only get 70.” 

On player personnel matters after the weekend…

“Bill (Norton) unfortunately made a very poor decision, poor choice in judgement and he’ll suffer the consequences for that; very disappointed in him. He knows we don’t accept that behavior here at the University of Georgia. He’ll be punished accordingly. As far as injuries, Nakobe (Dean) has practiced, he’s been back, he’s not a 100 percent, but he has practiced, which is promising. They had a day off yesterday, so I’ll know a lot more today with him coming out there, whether he’s 80, 90, or a hundred, I don’t know where he is but he’s going to need a lot of rehab. Jameree (Salyer) is still fighting his way back. He’s probably behind where Nakobe is but still expecting to get him back.”

 

On the plans for right guard on the offensive line and the return game…

“No decision is final, just exactly what you expect to hear and that guys are competing for the jobs. Cade (Mays]) and Ben (Cleveland) are still rolling at right guard. Both of them are doing a great job. Cade has been playing multiple positions besides there. Ben’s been playing primarily there and a little left guard. Long snapper will probably be decided this week. Returners will be a lot of the same guys. It’s (James) Cook, Demetris Robertson back there at kickoff return. Punt return will be Tyler (Simmons), Kearis (Jackson), Dominick (Blaylock), and D’Andre (Swift]). We’ve got four good practices still left that we’re evaluating guys and making final decisions on who’s going to be where.”

 

On who he thinks will be a defensive ‘game changer’ this season…

“You know, I don’t know. It’s really hard on defense. If you’re not a rusher affecting the passer, which neither (Roquan Smith or Deandre Baker) were. There’s ways, probably harder to negate Roquan and his talents because he’s in the middle of the field; Deandre had an unbelievable year for us and a special year the way he played but at the end of the day, they can avoid not using the other side of the field. In a way, it’s hard to find a guy who just affects the game outside a dominate pass rusher and it’s still yet to be determined if we have that and I don’t see one right now that I say, ‘that guy’s just unblockable on third down.’ If it was that way, it makes things a little simpler to call the game as opposed to having create pressures or do things to create plays. … Right now, I don’t know that we have that but we’ve got good depth, we’ve got some good young players.”

 

On embracing the high expectations…

“It’s reality. I don’t think that you run from that. I don’t really know a team in the SEC that doesn’t have high expectations; I don’t know a team in the country that doesn’t have high expectations. I think embracing them faces the fact that you have a standard that we have here of excellence and you want everyone to attain that. So, from the redshirt-freshmen to the walk-ons to the graduate transfer seniors, you embrace the fact that our intent, our drive is to be the best. Every day we go out to practice, every meeting we go in, every walk through we do, our intent is to go out and be the best we can. And if we have those expectations upon ourselves, it really doesn’t matter what the outside world says. We’re not going to be affected by what someone else says or what someone else says we should do and all the people that rank teams; they really don’t know. There’s no team hasn’t deserved any ranking they’ve gotten at this point. So, for us, those expectations are sometimes unwarranted but we inside believe we have a cetain standard of excellence that we have to recognize and we have to perform to it day in and day out and that starts this week. It’s our first chance to say, ‘are we going to perform to our standard,’ and that’s what we’re going to measure ourselves on in this game and this game alone. The things we don’t do well, we’re going to work on and the things we do well, we’re going to continue to improve on.”

 

On Zamir White and how he has handled practice and expectations coming off his ACL injury…

“Zamir’s worked really hard. Conditioning-wise, he’s one of the hardest workers on our team. He’s played in a lot of our special teams in roles. He’s done a good job in the scrimmages. I think he’s very confident with his knee and his health so he’s rip-roaring to go. I don’t have expectations for him per say, to say, ‘you’re going to do this in the second quarter at this time and this play.’ He’s just going to go with the flow of the game and sometimes that changes and I can’t tell you how that will be for him or what that will be from him but I can tell you is that he’s an unselfish kid that has worked his tail off to get back. Some of the expectations for him are probably unwarranted but for him, it’s a matter of he’s got his health and he wants to support his teammates.”

 

On the defense facing a team with the caliber of Vanderbilt to start the season…

“Well you like a challenge. We’ll certainly love and embrace the challenge. These guys are really talented and it seems like they’ve had superb players in our league and you look at what they’ve been able to do offensively, it’s pretty special to have the three guys they’ve had back. For three players that chose to not come out of the draft to come back, it gets your attention. When you look up there and see Ke’Shawn Vaughn, same number of 10-plus runs as D’Andre Swift has, that’s pretty special. … Each one of those guys has done a lot to earn the respect of our players. If you can do it in our league, it grabs the attention of the room.”

On which receivers are standing out right now and if he’s seen Mecole Hardman play during NFL preseason…

“I haven’t seen much. I saw the one touchdown run he had on the jet sweep where they tossed it to him and he looked explosive and fast.  Outside of that I have not seen a lot of his offensive plays.  We all knew what he could become and he’s really done that.”

 

As far as our guys, it’s been by committee. Tyler (Simmons) has had a good camp, but every one of those wide outs at one time or another has made really good plays, so there’s a body of eight or nine of them there that I think they need to get confidence.  They need to get catches, catch and run with the ball, make people miss. They need to use the skillsets that so many of them used to get them here. Getting the opportunity to do that and the next step for these guys is to go do that in a game. They haven’t had many opportunities to do it in a game.  I’ve seen them for the last two or three years, some of them, make catches and make plays, but nobody else has been able to. This is their opportunity to go out there and make plays.”

 

On quarterback Jake Fromm’s comfort level without a five-star quarterback behind him…

“Jake has always been comfortable. He is a comfortable quarterback. He believes in who he is. He trusts in his offense and understands the offense. He has a really good grasp of what plays want to be run versus what looks.  It’s like having an extra coach on the field. His level of confidence continues to grow because you see him impart that on the younger players and on the offensive line, running backs, and receivers. He leads. He is in a better spot than he’s ever been in, just from the standpoint of having more experience. It has nothing to do about who is behind him, it has everything to do with who he is.”

 

On what makes Jake Fromm different and if there’s a different curiosity that he has…

“I don’t know if that’s the case. He has a passion about the scheme card and the X’s and O’s. He has a really good special awareness of the field, understanding where people are, and where his people are. He trusts the system and believes in the system and knows that he has options. He knows before the play whether he’s going to do this, this, or this. He’s not having to process that information slowly, it comes natural to him through the number of reps he’s gotten. That probably makes him most different, than most other quarterbacks, is just his experience and his exposure to offensive football started at a younger age.”

 

On the media not seeing freshman running back Kenny McIntosh at practice on Friday…

“He’s there. You guys just missed him.”

 

On the deciding factors to determine which 70 players will travel…

“Who helps us win. That’s what we’re trying to do. We will take the guys who give us an opportunity to win and who can affect the game.  This week might not be the same as the next week. It’s not set in stone. It’s not set in stone for us. We play a heavy run team, a heavy pass team, if we’re going to run heavy, if we’re going to throw heavy, and special teams- there are a lot of things that factor into that. Nothing is final.”

 

On the dimensions with the new offensive coordinator, Gerry Gdowksi, at Vanderbilt…

“I think it makes it a little more unknown, but he’s in the system. Cortez (Hankton) worked with him and he was with him. He’s a good part of their system and done a fabulous job as their coordinator, along with Andy (Ludwig) for a long time.  He does a great job. They have a system that has some similarities to ours and they do a good job of playing the pro-style system.”

 

On his thoughts on Week 0 and the potential to open early…

“I don’t have a stance. The players have to report earlier to do that so you’re cutting their time down. And you may say, well they’re getting it back this week, they do, but they don’t really get a break because they’re in school. They don’t get to do other things. The way I look at it, if a player has six weeks during the summer and you make it five, that makes it a little tougher for the kid. To each its own, I think it’s one of those things that spreads out the season a little longer, maybe gives you more recovery within it, but it’s really what each coach prefers. What’s the option? What’s the situation? Are you going to get to play in an environment or game that is nationally televised and you get to have that exposure, that might make it worth it for the players to give up some of their time away.  I think each situation is different.”

#11 Jake Fromm | Jr. | QB

On the challenges of opening the season with a conference opponent… 

“It is going to be tough. Anytime you play a game here in the SEC it is going to be a tough, physical game. We are just trying to get our bodies and minds ready to go play a tough opponent.” 

On if, now that it is game week, it feels weird opening with an SEC opponent on the road… 

“It is a little bit different. You don’t have the normal feel of practicing, going to the stadium and playing in front of a home crowd. It is what it is, this is what we signed up for and we are going to go there and play our best game.” 

On the advantages of opening with a conference opponent… 

“You set the tone early. That is what we want to do as a team. We want to get tested early and be able to set the tone early as a team.” 

On how this year’s training camp has been different for him personally… 

“More experience. To be able to go through all the different scenarios we have during camp, to understand the grind of it, to understand how to take care of my body is a big one. Learning how to take care of my arm has been a big one to be able to sustain throughout camp. It really has been a good opportunity for me to be able to reach out and help the younger guys, too.” 

#89 Charlie Woerner | Sr. | TE

On who will catch the ball this year…

“For me, I’ve just been trying to do what I’ve done the entire time I’ve been here and that’s work hard and be a selfless player while I try to help the other guys. I think we’re going to have a great receiving group and tight end group this year.”

On how special it is to play four years at Georgia, being from the state of Georgia…

“I’m from just an hour up the road in Rabun County, Georgia, so it’s awesome to play for your hometown team. It’s meant a lot to me and my time here. Now, being a senior, it’s really special.”

On how valuable he thinks he can be, given his experience as receiver…

“I’ve really tried to be there for the young players as much as possible throughout this whole training process. So, I’m super excited for this game, to bring some older experience, and to show some of these younger guys the emotions of what it’s like to play a DI football game.”

On whether playing an SEC game on the road to open is a different feel than past openers…

“Yes and no. We always preach, ‘Next game,’ and to treat every game like it’s the most important game on the schedule. Being that it is the SEC opener, it’s going to be really hard, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

#20 J.R. Reed | Sr. | DB

On the challenge of opening on the road against a SEC team … 

“Definitely. When you go against great guys in the SEC you just love it. That is part of the reason that I came here — to go against this great talent week-in and week-out.” 

On how much opening against an opponent like Vanderbilt could help the defense for the remainder of the season… 

“It is definitely a challenge up front and it is a challenge that we are excited to take on. We will learn from it, move on and get better each week.”

On his description of the level of talent on this team since first arriving  in Athens… 

“Really, really high. We have lots of depth and competition for each spot brings the best out of everyone. There is a lot of pressure to get that playing time early, which makes everyone inspired to play at their highest level.” 

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