Still emerging from Nick Saban's shadow, Kirby Smart is SEC's most intriguing coach
Kirby Smart can coordinate some defense. He did so capably for Nick Saban and helped win four national championships along the way.
As Alabama’s defensive coordinator from 2008-15, plus an introductory season as defensive backs coach in 2007, Smart was in charge of the most dominant unit in the land. Season after season, the Crimson Tide were borderline impenetrable.
Even if the system was largely Saban’s — a case can be made that he’s the No. 1 DBs coach in the history of the game, too — it was Smart who was master of puppets from the sideline. ‘Bama was especially impervious stopping the run, never finishing lower than 10th nationally on his watch and leading the country three times.
Smart took home the Frank Broyles Award as America’s best assistant in 2009, when the Tide won their first title under Saban.
We know Smart can play sergeant, but what we don’t yet know is if he can play general. Leaving Tuscaloosa in 2016 to become the head coach at Georgia, his alma mater, Year 1 between the hedges resulted in just as many questions as answers.
Keep in mind this wasn’t a Butch Jones-like brick-by-brick rebuilding project at Tennessee, which was reeling after a disastrous stretch prior to his arrival. On the contrary, the Bulldogs were coming off consecutive 10-win seasons — four of the last five, actually — yet couldn’t quite get over the hump for former coach Mark Richt.
No, Smart was hired to take UGA to the next level and compete for more than the East. Making the College Football Playoff is the goal.
But this past year saw a step back to 8-5. There were losses to unranked Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, both at home. There were blowouts at the hands of Ole Miss and Florida. The Dawgs even had issues putting away lowly Nicholls State.
The defense — Smart’s baby — was good but not great. Georgia finished fourth in the SEC vs. the run, second vs. the pass, fourth in total D and tied for fifth in scoring D. Alabama continued to rush the passer viciously for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, leading the league with 54 sacks. The Bulldogs, conversely, were only sixth with 29.
Fortunately, Smart returns 10 of 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball for 2017, including several preseason all-conference picks.
Tackle Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith were both first-team selections. Thompson is a playmaker at what isn’t typically a playmaking position, while Smith was UGA’s premier tackler a season ago and figures to be again.
Safety Dominick Sanders was a second-team choice, despite the fact that he was more impressive as a sophomore statistically in 2015 with 6 interceptions and 5.0 tackles for loss. As a junior, those numbers dipped to 3 and 1.5, respectively.
Linebacker Lorenzo Carter (below) was a third-team honoree. Still more potential than production at this point of his career — the former five-star recruit didn’t have a single stop behind the line of scrimmage as a sophomore — he was credited with 5.0 sacks in 2016. He turned down the NFL Draft and came back to Athens.
UGA’s defense should be just fine. Even Saban needed a year or so with the Crimson Tide before that group became an annual terror.
However, the Dawgs aren’t going anywhere of consequence unless the offense improves dramatically across the board. They were ninth in the SEC last season in rushing, 10th in passing and 11th in both yards and points per game.
Much is explained by the presence of then-true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, who took over for incumbent Greyson Lambert in Week 1 and started the rest of the way. There were moments of brilliance — his game-winning touchdown pass at Missouri and almost game-winner vs. Tennessee — but they were outweighed by first-year struggles.
It’s safe to assume that Eason will be better in Year 2, although he was less than sharp on G-Day this past April.
Like the aforementioned Carter, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel said no to the pros and yes to their senior seasons at Georgia. Each should be healthier, too. Chubb’s torn knee and Michel’s broken arm were troublesome in 2016.
The real sore spots offensively for the Bulldogs were in the trenches and along the perimeter. The blocking up front left much to be desired — not only was Eason constantly under pressure, but Chubb and Michel were hit in the backfield too often — plus the receiving corps was mostly all thumbs. Those segments can’t continue to lag behind.
And don’t forget about special teams. UGA was far from sound in the third phase of the game and lost a lot of hidden yardage.
One way or another, the spotlight will shine brightest on Smart. This squad simply didn’t play very well for prolonged stretches last year. Ultimately, that’s the head coach’s responsibility. He must get more comfortable at the top.
As a recruiter, Smart is already Saban Lite. According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, the Dawgs signed the No. 3 class in the nation — only ‘Bama and Ohio State outdid them — in February. In particular, 5-star safety Richard LeCounte III and 4-star receiver Jeremiah Holloman looked like immediate contributors in the spring game.
While Saban’s coaching tree has many branches, the results have been mixed once his protégés left the nest.
Jimbo Fisher went to Florida State and won a national title, resurrecting a proud program that had slipped before Bobby Bowden retired. Derek Dooley, on the other hand, failed miserably at Tennessee and will likely never get another head-coaching job.
Even if the arrow seems to be pointed in the right direction, the jury is still out on Smart. He has implemented a decidedly different style than Richt — he won’t go anywhere near a high dive, for example — to get Georgia to the finish line. The puzzle pieces are there. Smart just has to do what Richt never could: put them all together.
Is he another Fisher or another Dooley? Smart will likely fall somewhere in between. Is that an improvement over Richt? Maybe, maybe not.