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UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA FOOTBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE

November 26, 2018

Kirby Smith

Athens, Georgia

KIRBY SMART: 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.

Q. Kirby, when you got here as a player, Florida had its fun and gun going with Anthony and Hilliard and those guys, and those guys could get such separation. When you look at that and what Alabama is doing this year with their yards per catch, is it kind of reminiscent or are they doing things different as far as that goes?
KIRBY SMART: 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 got came 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.

Q. As relates to defending kickoffs, what do you look at this week, not just because of the touchdown that Tech scored, but y'all are giving up something like 30 yards a return.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah. We gotta 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.

Q. Coach, how much, if any, does it help Jake that he played against Alabama last year maybe have, I don't know, maybe a better idea kind of what to expect?
KIRBY SMART: I don't think it hurts anything. But this year is a different year. I mean I think 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.

Q. Kirby, last year when you were second year as a head coach you were asked multiple times about the difference between year one and year two. Is there any difference being your second year kind of going into the postseason playing in this game and kind of preparing for maybe a college football playoff run and what you guys have coming up, is there anything you've learned about what you guys went through last year in preparing for this game that you can kind of carry over?
KIRBY SMART: I'm not sure I understand the question. You talking about preparing for the SEC Championship game or something we learned last year from the national title game?

Q. Yeah, what you learned from the experience of post-season play last year that you kind of take in the schedule this week in preparing for Alabama?
KIRBY SMART: Not really. I mean 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.

Q. Kirby, you obviously coached under one man for so long at a couple places. When you're on the sideline in situations like that, would you have gained any particular insight into maybe what Nick is thinking during a game that could help you during the game?
KIRBY SMART: 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.

Q. And one followup. I know the subject was beaten to death last January, but indulge me with one question. Do you think beating your mentor would be special at all as opposed to any other one?
KIRBY SMART: 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.

Q. Kirby, you mentioned during the off season about lessons learned in coverage from that last play of the game last year. Has that come up during the last year that you've taught your guys, brought it up?
KIRBY SMART: Not really. 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.

Q. Coach, a two-part question on Tua. As you guys kind of study him and see what he does, is there any carryover from last year having played him in a meaningful type of action for 30 minutes? And then, also, have you noticed any differences in the way that he's played in that half last year to where he is now?
KIRBY SMART: Oh, yeah. He's improved tremendously. I mean he was really good in that half, but you gotta 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's got them at his disposal to make good decisions and put the ball in the right people's hands, and he does a tremendous job of -- 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 don't think that's -- 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.

Q. Coach, you talked a lot after last season about it's not easy replacing No. 1 and No. 27. But if you look at your rushing production, it's been almost identical to last year. And a two-part question here as well. Elijah Holyfield in particular, his ability to get to the pylon appears to be fairly special, and just what you've seen from him this season that maybe exceeded your expectations.
KIRBY SMART: I've been very pleased with Elijah, 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. And 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's got a good knack for getting the ball in the end zone, and he's a slasher. He's not afraid of contact.

Q. Coach, you updated on your teleconference Monty Rice and Cade Mays. Any updates with that? And also, Ben Cleveland and Trey kind of hobbled off late against Tech. What does he look like this week?
KIRBY SMART: Trey 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 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 and Monty from last night. I don't know anything else. That's been less than 24 hours ago.

Q. Kirby, obviously their receiver depth is what it is. Do you think your all's receivers are kind of un-heralded also one through whatever it is, five, six? I mean could they stack up with Alabama's receivers?
KIRBY SMART: I think it's a tough comparison. I don't like doing comparisons. I got a lot of respect for Alabama's wideouts. 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've got 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.

Q. Jake and the receiver corps seemed to be really on point, especially the way they played against Tech. What do you like that you've seen as far as their growth this season?
KIRBY SMART: Timing. You know, balance. Done a good job with the RPO game, done a good job with the vertical passing game. They've done a good job connecting on 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.

Q. Kirby, will you all be inside pretty much the whole week? Is there any point in going outside this week?
KIRBY SMART: We may be outside just to get out there. But it's going to depend on the weather. I mean 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.

Q. When you were at Alabama, did you see teams that would come in and just you could tell that they saw the Alabama name and weren't ready to play, and how does it help your team knowing that they could have beaten Alabama last year as they come in as 10-point underdogs?
KIRBY SMART: 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 gotta go play your best game. You gotta be yourself and you gotta 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 got a good football team, and our kids got a lot of pride in performance and they're not basing that on last year's, because there's a lot of those kids off that team. There's very far -- I know defensively for us there's very few guys that are back returning starters. We got 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.

Q. Kirby, you haven't even been here three full seasons yet. Given the turnover that Alabama has had on its coaching staff the last couple of years and just given all your responsibilities, are you close with anybody over there as much as say you were obviously when you were there?
KIRBY SMART: Oh, yeah. 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 I'm good friends with and that's no different at Alabama.

Q. Obviously you knew they were all coming, all these questions about Alabama and your time there and all that. I'm sure you're probably proud of what you guys were able to accomplish. Is there a fatigue factor being asked all these questions and having to kind of deal with that link with you guys playing last year and playing this year? Is there frustration that goes into that?
KIRBY SMART: 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. That's your all's questions. I get it. You all got a job to do and my job is to answer them.

Q. Kirby, you mentioned protection of the quarterbacks as being a crucial part of this game. In stopping those wideouts, just how critical would it be just making Tua uncomfortable with the pass rush as far as helping your DBs out and not letting him break open deep?
KIRBY SMART: 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 gotta take a lot of chances, and there's some good players back there behind those chances you're taking.

And 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.

Q. Kirby, I know you talk about the teams are much different, even since last year, but how much can you motivate guys? I mean I know you like to show things that have happened in the past. How much does what happened in January do you think push your team a little bit or provide a little extra edge or make them go a little harder this week?
KIRBY SMART: 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 gotta 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 gotta 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.

Q. Coach, you have a very young secondary, but you do lead the nation right now in fewest plays of 20 or more yards. How have you been able to do that and how can you use that against Alabama?
KIRBY SMART: Well, you know, 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 gotta do a good job of affecting the quarterback, and sometimes that exposes you to more risk and you gotta go play better.

Q. Is Irv Smith a particularly difficult matchup, their tight end, or have you seen guys with his skill set this season do you think?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, he's talented. He's extremely fast. He's one of, like I said, when you look across the personnel board, they've got a plethora of guys that are talented skill players. I mean I think their backs are underrated. They've got 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, really talented guy. And good player and good blocker.

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