Georgia reloads for another championship run under Smart
ATLANTA (AP) — Even six months later, there was no way for Kirby Smart to dodge the question.
The Georgia coach just knew he’d be asked if he has recovered from the Bulldogs’ loss to Alabama in the national championship game.
“Everybody wants to ask that question,” Smart said Tuesday at the Southeastern Conference’s annual preseason media gathering.
“It’s not like I have nightmares about it, no,” Smart added.
Georgia enjoyed memorable highlights in Smart’s second season, including the Bulldogs’ first SEC championship since 2005, a win at Notre Dame and a national semifinals victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
The Bulldogs lost their chance for their first national championship since 1980 when Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa completed a dramatic 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime.
It was a crushing disappointment, but Smart said it shouldn’t overshadow the season’s other accomplishments.
“I think we grow from it,” Smart said. “I think the entire season is a learning experience. It was a confidence builder for a lot of guys on our team.”
The Bulldogs must replace such 2017 leaders as tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebacker Roquan Smith. Even so, there are expectations for another big season.
Senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said it’s important for players to understand another championship run must be earned.
“It’s a little different and I will say it’s a little dangerous,” Ledbetter said. “That thought of complacency starts to come in there. We kind of have to push it out if we hear ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to win it this year.’”
Added Ledbetter: “You’ve got to take it one game at a time. If you start looking at the future or the past you’ve messed up.”
As the defending SEC champion, Georgia expects to get every opponent’s top effort.
“We know everyone is going to circle us on their schedule but that doesn’t change our mentality,” said cornerback J.R. Reed. “… We know everyone is going to be gunning for us but we can’t change. We have to keep the same mentality.”
Georgia returns 13 starters, including eight on offense. Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm has new competition from freshman Justin Fields, one of the biggest names in Smart’s top-rated 2018 signing class.
“The momentum we created from last season has been tremendous for us through recruiting, through spring,” Smart said.
Fields, skilled as a runner and passer, will enter preseason practice as the No. 2 quarterback, but it’s clear Smart has big plans for the freshman. Smart said he has no plans to hold out Fields as a redshirt.
“He gives us an element in our offense we don’t have,” Smart said.
Usually, a team might be expected to struggle to replace a pair of senior tailbacks selected in the NFL draft. Instead, the Bulldogs are still deep at the position now led by D’Andre Swift. Georgia also returns Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien. Two freshmen, Zamir White and James Cook, will join the depth chart, though White’s status is uncertain as he was held out this spring while recovering from a knee injury suffered his senior year in high school.
Georgia also should be deep at wide receiver, especially if Demetris Robertson is granted a waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from California.
“That’s out of my department and that will be in the NCAA’s hands,” Smart said when asked about the possibility Robertson could be ruled eligible this year.
Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley are Fromm’s top returning targets.
Georgia hopes a balanced offense can take the lead while the defense rebuilds.
“We know how we did it last year,” Reed said. “We want to do it even better because we didn’t get to finish the result.”