Kirby Smart Previews 2018 SEC Championship Game

November 30, 2018
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THE MODERATOR: At this time, we'd like to welcome the SEC Eastern Division Champion Georgia Bulldogs Coach Kirby Smart. Coach, welcome.

Coach, congratulations. If you'd like to make an opening comment.

KIRBY SMART: Certainly honored and excited to be here to represent the SEC East. We've known for a little bit longer than most years that we would be here, and we've also known who our opponent is going to be. We've had a lot of business to take care of up to that point, and we've done that. This week is going to be a preparation week for us.

Our guys are certainly excited. I know our fans are excited to get inside the stadium and get an opportunity to go play against a really, really quality football team. I've got a lot of respect for their program, just being part of it for so long. I know a lot about it. I know a lot about their players, and they've got a fabulous football team.

Our guys have created this opportunity for themselves, and we're looking forward to taking advantage of it.

Q. Kirby, do you have an update on the condition of Ben Cleveland, Monty Rice, and Cade Mays and their ability to play tomorrow?
KIRBY SMART: Very similar to what it has been previous weeks. Ben has practiced better than he has in previous weeks, but he still will be a game-time decision. Cade got to practice limited a bit yesterday, and Monty was able to practice a little bit this week as well.

Q. Coach, you talk about stopping the run taking priority. Does Tua change that equation? If so, how?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, he creates a lot of parts to an equation, and it is really tough to figure out that equation. When it comes to their ability to run the ball, they have really good backs. They're a really explosive offensive football team. You can take the motto that they're a pass first, but they're usually the path of least resistance, which in most games has been the ability to throw the ball.

They certainly can run the ball, which is what makes it really difficult to defend and why you see so many lopsided scores. They're able to score a lot of points. They're really hard to stop. We'll have to do a good job against the run. We'll have to effect the quarterback. We'll have to play a lot of one-on-one situations outside with their receivers. That's the challenge when you play a really good football team.

Q. Kirby, I just want -- as far as D'Andre Swift goes, what has it meant to have him finally healthy this year, and what kind of effect has it had on the offense?
KIRBY SMART: I think he's a very explosive player. When he's in full health, it certainly makes him more explosive. I think we've seen a good bit of his ability when he gets in space and his ability to create things out of the backfield. He's a talented back. He'll be playing against a really quality defense as well, and we've got to get him going.

Q. Coach, as you've looked at this game, can you speak on how important the special teams is. How important is it in a game like this against a team like Alabama?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I always say the closer two teams are, the more special teams has a bearing. I certainly think that special teams is going to be critical in every game, not necessarily more important in this game than any other game previous. We spend a lot of time and energy, and we put a lot of our best players on special teams units, so do they.

And when you look across the board, I think those plays you'll see elite talent matched up against elite talent. You'll see a lot of really good matchups that may be the game within the game. A lot of people don't notice, but we think our special teams are ready to go. We work really hard on them.

I'm excited to give the guys an opportunity to go out and play. They've got a really great challenge. Their punt returner is incredible. Their kickoff returner is incredible. They have really good returners, and they have good people blocking for them.

Q. Coach, you talked earlier about your success that you had there in Alabama, but now that you are here and building your own program, do you -- and people have always tried to connect you back to that success or that tree. Do you find it motivating, as you establish your own program for success, or is that kind of like the curse of that success?
KIRBY SMART: I'm not sure I exactly understand the question, to be honest with you.

Q. The question is it's like your success here is going to be kind of like the shadow of the success that was there, and now that you're establishing your own success, do you find that to motivate you to get from underneath that shadow?
KIRBY SMART: I think the success we've been able to have at University of Georgia is attributed to the players that have been here. A lot of those guys from last year's team are gone, and a lot of the seniors this year will be gone, but that success goes to them and the staff and the people that put in so much time and effort and work into it.

I don't look at it as it's really about me or anything like that. I look at it as it's a total program, and that's what we really define ourselves by at University of Georgia. We play to a standard. We have a lot of expectations. We don't run from those expectations. We embrace them, and we do the best job we can day in and day out to put a great team out on the field and mold young players into men. That's our hope and our goal.

Q. You guys have played in this building a lot now, it feels like. What do you hope to get accomplished today in the walk-through?
KIRBY SMART: Really the walk-through is more about brushing up, cleaning up things for us. It's about exposure to the venue. As you mentioned, we've had two games in here, so our kids will be comfortable as far as playing in here. The atmosphere that's created is one of the most incredible atmospheres in all of college football. When you talk about the SEC Championship, it's one of the most watched games in all of college football. So we're certainly excited about that.

The walk-through is really just a formality for us to make sure we understand what we're doing, final touches, brush up, clean things up from yesterday.

Q. Kirby, we talked a lot about what Alabama did last year, the Championship Game at halftime, making the switch to Tua. We don't talk about what you all were doing during halftime of that game. Could you take us through that locker room. Did you expect them to make the switch? Were you prepared at all for that?
KIRBY SMART: We certainly knew that we'd see some different looks. There was a lot of talk leading up to the game that Tua would play if they ever struggled. The noise coming out of Tuscaloosa was that. But there's not a lot you prepare for differently. It's not like you say, well, they might put this other guy in, and he might throw the ball more. I mean, you prepare that way every game. Jalen threw the ball.

It didn't have much to do with what we were doing at halftime versus they were much more effective defensively and they got some momentum offensively. None of which, I think, will have any bearing on this game.

Q. Coach, you guys have a lot of experience in this place, SEC Championship last year. Swift had a big coming out a little bit into the National Championship. Mecole and Riley had a big game. Are you excited about how your players take advantage of the big stage and how it's not always the same player?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I'm excited the opportunity that we get to find out who it is. We've had that kind of all the way throughout the year. We've had different defensive players have really good games. Different guys have led the team in tackles in different games. And then offensively, like you mentioned, it might be J.J. Holloman one game, Riley one game, Mecole, Terry, Swift, Holyfield -- a lot of different guys have made plays, and a lot of that is circumstantial. It's not by intent. It's not by design. It's you take what the defense gives you.

I think that's what makes you a really good offensive football team is your ability to hurt people in different ways. And I certainly know from watching Alabama's film that's what they have the capability of doing.

Q. Kirby, you mentioned Ben Cleveland being a game-time decision. How comfortable have you all got with the play of Trey Hill down the stretch? How do you evaluate him?
KIRBY SMART: Trey's done a tremendous job. Here's a guy who got plugged and had to play against Kentucky. Did a fabulous job in that game to come in and execute at a high level. He's played well. He's gotten some confidence playing at guard, and we'll continue to do that. And if Ben's healthy enough and able to play and he's the best available option, then he'll play.

Q. Obviously, it's a team game, but quarterback is the most high profile position. Last year Jake Fromm played against Baker Mayfield, very well-known quarterback, and his team earned the win. This year it's another very well-known, likely Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa. Do you think Jake takes extra motivation in being the quarterback in the game that gets the least attention, maybe feeling a little extra pressure to make sure his offense can keep pace?
KIRBY SMART: You know, I don't know if he does or not. I never asked Jake that. I never bring that up about the opposing quarterback because ultimately he's not facing them. He's facing their defense. I know he's a very prideful kid. I know he's extremely competitive. I mean, every day at practice, he wants to compete, he wants to win, he's very driven, so I know that probably motivates him some. But it's not something we talk about.

Q. Kirby, I don't know if this has been asked already, but the status of Monty Rice and his availability for tomorrow?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, Monty was able to do a little more as the week went on. He was able to do some stuff yesterday, but he'll be a game-time decision.

Q. Kirby, you mentioned on what Tua does athletically with the ball in his hand. What are some of the things in play that he does that separate him from other quarterbacks, whether you mentioned looking off defenders and that kind of thing?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I think he has a sense of the field and spacing. He's spatially aware of where people are, so he can sit in the pocket amongst trees and giants and people rushing at him, and he has no fear. People are barreling down on him, he sidesteps them, keeps his eyes downfield. He understands leverages, and he knows where he's going with the ball.

First of all, he's well coached, but he's really, really talented. So when you have that combination of talent and coaching and spatial awareness where he understands does that guy have leverage on that guy? He can see that at all times amongst chaos, and he keeps his eyes downfield and does a really good job.

You don't find many guys that sack him the first guy. He makes a lot of people miss, and he doesn't do it just to scramble. He does it to scramble and throw.

Q. Kirby, you mentioned earlier that you knew for longer than usual that you would be here. Your team obviously had expected and wanted to be here. Do you expect to see any difference when your players see this place for the first time since last year's Championship Game, maybe a little more excitement, maybe a little more impatience to get to tomorrow? Any impact being in this building again?
KIRBY SMART: No, I don't think so. I certainly don't think the venue is of significance. That's for you guys who are superstitious. Our guys are looking at the field and saying, hey, we get a chance to go out and play. We've got an opportunity to play in a great venue, and close to home for most of them. So I think that's a little overdone.

Q. Kirby, your team had a great week of practice. Is that always a good sign that you're going to play well in the game? Or conversely sometimes have a poor week of practice and have a good game. Is that kind of hard for the coaches to quantify what they're going to do?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, it's extremely hard to quantify. I think every coach would tell you he had a good week of practice leading up to the game. I never heard one say, man, we practiced like dogs this week and didn't do much. I've never been around anybody that was willing to say that. I think that each week of practice, you may inside know how you practiced, deep down inside, but whether that has an effect or not, I don't think so because I've seen it go both ways.

Q. Another question about special teams. As you talk about Alabama's punt returns and kick returns being incredible, how can that kind of -- like how can the guys also serve as an asset in rotation with punt return
KIRBY SMART: Well, we have good returners. I'm openly -- Mecole is very talented. We do a good job holding up for him, and he's a talented kickoff returner as well. That's a big part of the game. Their coverage unit on punt and their coverage unit on kickoff is really incredible, and it affected us last year in the game. We had a couple of possessions that started backed up from a kickoff perspective.

Both teams put a lot of demand on the special teams, which is why it will be a critical part of the game.

Q. Coach, sometimes during the game the players press it and they force plays and make mistakes. As a coach, when you're getting prepared for the game, how do you not over think it or over prepare for it?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I think you put people in the situation they're going to be in as much as possible. We put a lot of demands on our preseason practice, on our practices leading up to the first game all the way through the season. So we don't look at it as the moment is bigger than you. We look at it as we've been in a lot of big moments. We've had a lot of pressure moments. We want to go out and play.

I think the best coaching job you do is when you have your team prepared to play and not anxious and not too much anxiety. So you want to be confident. You want them to be serious. You want them to be focused.

Q. Kirby, all year long you've used the term work in progress is how you've described the team. For that vision of how you -- where you want to get with how the team plays, have you seen that come into view this last week or two? Do you expect to see that?
KIRBY SMART: Have we gotten better? Yeah. Are we where we need to be? No, we're not where we need to be. We have a lot to improve on. I don't think that improvement is ever over. As a coach, when do you think you've ever arrived? We certainly haven't arrived. We've got a lot of areas to improve on.

But the work in progress statement, we have been that, and we have shown improvement in areas. We're up against a team that's really talented, and we're going to find out a lot more about ourselves when you do that. I'm proud of the way our guys have competed. I'm proud of the way our guys have improved. We have to continue to do that.

 
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