Smart, Bulldogs preview showdown against Mississippi State
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Smart, Bulldogs preview showdown against Mississippi State

Kirby Smart
Photo: Steven Colquitt/UGA

ATHENS, Ga. – Two top-20 teams meet this Saturday at Sanford Stadium when the 11th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs take on 17th-ranked Mississippi State at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

On Monday, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, along with several players, previewed this weekend’s Southeastern Conference opener. They offered the following comments.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

Opening statement … 

“Welcome, guys. Looking forward to a great opportunity to play a really well-coached, good football team both sides of the ball — very explosive. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Dan) Mullen and their program, having gone against them for a long time my previous stop. I think they’re a very physical team. They always are. Very hands-on on special teams. I’ve always had respect for his special teams units. He seems to always find really good quarterbacks, especially dual-threat guys. He’s known for developing those type of guys. He’s done a good job with their overall program.

Defensively right now they’re playing as good as anybody in the conference — playing really hard on defense, playing really physical. So, they’ve got a very good team.

We are excited for the matchup. We obviously need to make the home atmosphere special, make it tough for them to play in. I am encouraging all the Dawg Nation to be there, which I know they will, be loud and proud.

We’ll open it up for questions.”

On Mississippi State junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald … 

“I didn’t know much about Nick [in the recruiting process]. He was kind of under the radar. Just goes again to show what Dan has been able to do with quarterbacks. He saw something in the kid. He’s unbelievably competitive, physical, big. I mean, he did it with Dak Prescott. Dak was not a highly recruited guy. A guy with good size, dimensions, has the ability to throw the ball, but can run. Nick played in a little bit of a different offense at high school. He’s developed as a quarterback. To see him this year compared to all the games we watched last year in the off-season, he’s one of the most vastly improved players because he’s not one-dimensional any more. He was really a runner last year. That’s not the case. I saw that same growth with Dak Prescott during his time at Mississippi State.”

On MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham … 

I’ve known Todd for a long time. He used to come and talk ball with us when I was at LSU on Nick’s staff. We would share ideas, pressures when he was in the NFL. I have communicated with him when we played like opponents when he was here and we tried to help each other back and forth. I think Todd does a tremendous job. He’s very smart, very knowledgeable, knows how to attack protections. He’s a guy that’s constantly working on getting better. He’s got these guys believing and playing really hard, really physical. Got some good players. Got some big guys up front. They’re playing hard. He’s got some fast guys. They just seem like they have a lot of guys they play. They use them well. They use them to their strengths. They moved Jeffery Simmons around. Got good players, good guys in the secondary. He has those guys believing in each other and they’re playing really hard.

On Nick Fitzgerald being an ‘under the radar’ recruit and the advancements he has made…

“He played in a system that didn’t really show off some of his skill set. When you take a guy that’s running option, those kind of things in high school, sometimes you take that with the idea that this guy is going to grow into something. I’ve seen quarterbacks like that turn into great tight ends. That wasn’t the case with him. Dan took him and developed him and worked really hard with him. He’s got a lot of family members. He’s kin to Charles Pledger, who played here with me. He’s been telling me about the guy ever since he got over there. He’s done nothing but get better every time.”

On similarities between Fitzgerald and Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush…

“I think Wimbush and Nick are very different type guys. Nick is a unique quarterback with his length, ability to see over. He’s a lot faster than you think, deceptively. He doesn’t look as if, when you talk to people that played him, he’s running real fast, but he is. I think that’s different. Wimbush had a little bit more quick twitch. This kid is long and fast. When you get loose on him, you see him running away from SEC defenses. You didn’t see that with Wimbush. They didn’t play SEC defenses. This guy has gone up against the kind of defenses we’ve had repeatedly. He’s faced that a bunch. He’s a good player. We’re excited for the opportunity to compete against him.”

On Georgia’s offensive line … 

“I think you’re always tweaking. I think you’re always looking for the best players. We have who we have. We try to get what we have better. I think that’s an area that obviously we can improve on. Each guy that’s played has done some good things. Kendall Baker has shown some good things, has some mishaps. Same with Pat Allen. Solomon [Kindley] is getting more steady in there. He has to continue to improve. He gives us something that we don’t have, but we only have kind of so many options. You got to use the options you got best. We’ll continue looking at guys across the board. Some guys may get some looks at guard.”

On the emergence of redshirt-sophomore DB J.R. Reed … 

“We found out about J.R. really through the recruitment of Deangelo Gibbs. He’s a relative of Deangelo. Good friends, grew up together. Deangelo kept bringing his name up, his family did. His father Jake being from right down the road. As far as him becoming a starter, he kind of emerged in the spring. He was on the scout team last year. We didn’t know while he was on the scout team what caliber of player he was going to be. You just look at a card. You don’t actually run our defense, you run the other team’s defense. We saw athleticism, but didn’t know whether he was going to be a starter or not. We knew at the end of the spring that he was going to be a starter. He is impressive both mentally and physically. He practices really hard. That gives him a competitive advantage. He’s been a good pickup. He’s been a savior in some sorts because of the thin secondary we’ve had.”

On giving defenses different looks on offense … 

“I think it’s important. I think it’s probably overrated a little as far as shotgun, offense, “I” offense. I mean, at the end of the day, you got to run the ball, you got to stop the run. It’s how you do it most efficiently. Some of that is based on your personnel, what your guys do good. I think defensively the way teams look at is, when you’re in the shotgun, it’s not like it’s a secret. When you’re in the “I”, it’s not like it’s a secret. They can look at those things, see it, try to get tendencies off it. I think every coach in America is trying to break his tendencies. I think it’s a little overrated as far as what are you: “I”, the shotgun. I don’t know many teams that don’t go under center, don’t go under shotgun.

On the progress of sophomore QB Jacob Eason and how freshman QB Jake Fromm has looked … 

“Jacob is recovering well. Hope to get him out there today to do some things. He’s running, moving around. We’ll get to see how he goes. I haven’t got to see him in three days. We’ll find out more today where he’s at. As far as Jake Fromm, I think he continues to improve. He’s got some areas he’s got to improve in. He’s making better decisions more consistently, which for us, the quarterback position is a decision-making position. We’re not asking the guy to go out there and scramble around and make runs. We have to get him to make good decisions. As long as he does that, we can play winning football. He’s improved in that area, but has some growth to go.

On the key to senior OLB Lorenzo Carter’s intensity … 

“Let me say this. He turns on the aggression in the game, but that doesn’t make you a savage. He plays aggressively in the game. That’s the way you should play. The guy plays with relentless effort, which we talk about all the time. An uncanny ability not to be denied. He’s not going to let an offensive tackle or running back stop him. As far as how you cut that loose in somebody, I think everybody’s different. Some guys are motivated through fear. Some guys are motivated by self-motivation. Some guys, they want to be yelled at to get them going. Lorenzo is a self-starter. He plays hard without encouragement. He plays hard because that’s who he is.

On tight ends getting the ball more … 

“I always redirect all that to what is the performance of those guys. Are they blocking well? Are they doing the things they have to do? Are they able to open up play-action? At the end of the day, you kind of get how you practice. Guys practice the right way, they play physical, they block, then they usually get rewarded because our run game is better, the play-action game is better. If they don’t do those things, we usually don’t have a lot of success. We have some improvement in that area, and we have to play better in that area.”

On if hype increases because it is an SEC game…

“I don’t really know when you say ‘ratcheted’ up. Every week is the same level intensity for me. We don’t take opponents lightly. It’s not like we say, okay guys, SEC this week, let’s go practice harder, practice longer. We have a plan, we have a process we do each week. We follow that process each week. I don’t think it’s let’s jack it up, crank it up. That wouldn’t be fair to the opponents we just played. But as far as where we are, I think playing a team like this this week will tell us a lot. It’s hard to say. I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve arrived, because I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’ve improved. I think we have to continue to improve to beat the teams we have on our schedule.”

On the young running backs and the future of the Georgia backfield … 

“I don’t know they’ve been given an opportunity to prove. They got to run the ball against Samford. I don’t know how many carries it was. I think you earn that by the way you practice against our defense who is pretty good at stopping the run. You earn that by how you protect the ball against our defense in practice. They get to go against them each day. They earn that by going against blitz pickups against our guys each day. They continue to develop in that category. So it’s important for them. Just because they went out against Samford and played well, I think that’s great, certainly makes me feel better about them going out and doing it in a game, but they still have something to prove to everybody. I think what those guys have done is take on a role in our special teams. Nobody gives (Elijah) Holyfield credit, but he’s the guy blocking on kickoff returns, Brian Herrien covers kicks, D’Andre Swift covers punts and kicks. Those guys are very valuable in what they do.”

On what Georgia is missing without the services of senior DB Malkom Parrish … 

“Depth. Simple. We just don’t have a lot of depth. I think that’s important to have in the secondary where you play sometimes upwards of 80, 90 snaps. You got five and six guys on the field. When you don’t have extra guys to sub and play, it makes you very thin.”

On the status of junior wide receiver Michael Chigbu and junior ILB Rashad Roundtree … 

“Chigbu should be good to go. We expect him out there today. We’ll find out more. Rashad has been going through some concussion things that we’ve had to handle protocol with. Hopefully we get Rashad back soon. Chigbu will be out there today.

On the team being in-sync on the sideline … 

“To me we’re doing everything we did last year. Maybe we’re doing it more efficiently. I certainly think everybody’s into the game every game. They better be. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be on the sideline. I think organization is important. I think making sure you understand the situations in the game that come up. I mean, people substitute on offense, substitute on defense. You’re always trying to stay on top of that and in tune with it. But I don’t know that it’s much different.

On if Malkom Parrish will be available Saturday … 

“We hope to see today. Again, we’re going off last time I saw him do anything was really Thursday. Today we’re going to be able to do more with him. We hope to be able to get him back this week. I can’t tell you anything until after practice today.

On Georgia’s special teams and the play of junior wide receiver Jayson Stanley on the coverage unit …

“I don’t think people give Jayson Stanley enough credit. If you go back and watch the tape, the guy has been dominant in coverage, like kickoff and punt. Now, fortunately with the ability of our specialists to kick it higher, deeper, longer, hang time, he’s getting to show those skill sets. They’re also making it where we don’t know what the coverage unit does because they haven’t had to cover. They’re covering, but the balls aren’t coming out. I like that just as much. Rod (Rodrigo Blankenship) has done a tremendous job. I can’t say kickoff coverage we’re a lot better than last year because Rod has kicked the ball out of the end zone. That’s a great problem to have. You get to find out more when one comes out. Then punt coverage, done a good job of bombing it. Jayson has been all over it. We’ve had several fair catches. Those coverage units, we’ve worked hard on them. I think they’re improved, but they don’t get tested as much as they used to.

Senior TE #83 Jeb Blazevich
On what he has seen on video of Mississippi State
So far tracking the LSU game, it is flaringly obvious that coach (Todd) Grantham, coach (Jeremy) Pruitt, coach (Kirby) Smart and coach (Mel) Tucker all come from the same circle with different wrinkles. I think the defenses are somewhat similar to what we run and things that we’ve seen before.

On Jake Fromm’s play through the first three games
“I’m so proud of him. He is an awesome guy and has a crazy, hard work ethic. He just wants to be the leader of this team and he isn’t afraid to step up and do that. I think he’s not afraid of taking chances and he’s not afraid to put himself out there and he just gives it all he’s got. He is getting his reads right and multiple checks at the line. It was a weird schedule last week with the hurricane affecting us but I think he did a good job at staying consistent.”

On the involvement of the tight ends in the passing game…
“We are just trying to win games and we are winning games, so however we need to do that that’s where our head is at. Obviously when we called those passing routes, it is up to us to get open and if not get other guys open. As long as our passing game as a whole is doing well and we are able to contribute to that then that’s all we care about.”

Junior ILB #3 Roquan Smith
On facing Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald…
“I think it is a huge challenge. They pride themselves on running the ball and we pride ourselves in stopping the run. So with them coming into Sanford, I’m looking forward to it and it is a great opportunity. He can throw it and run the ball so he is an awesome guy, an awesome athlete.”

On similarities between Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush and Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald…
“They are definitely both dual threats but they are two different style of runners as well. Nick is a bigger guy and what not but I’m just looking forward to the opportunity. It is all just form tackle technique at the end of the day so the bigger you are, the harder you fall.”

On the SEC opener and the matchup between two top-25 teams…
“At the end of the day, we have to keep the main thing, the main thing. It is just the next game on the schedule and we just have to take care of it like its the next game on the schedule.”
Junior WR #5 Terry Godwin
On Jake Fromm’s development…
“Just for him to go out in Notre Dame in that type of environment and put on the show that he put on, that’s amazing because he’s a 18/19-year old kid. Being in an environment like that and being able to keep his poise in the pocket. To come home to Sanford Stadium for his first career start here, it was amazing for him to go out there and get that win for us.”
On former Georgia safety Jonathan Abrams
“I actually talked to Jon earlier today. Just to see him out there doing his thing, that makes us smile. For us, he’s still a part of this Bulldog nation, and that’s something that we lean on. Even when he left here we still kept in touch, and still communicate to this day. For any Bulldog to leave, it’s tough to see them go because you build that bond with them, and no matter where you are, you’re still going to keep that bond and communicate with them.”
On starting conference play…
“For me it feels like any other week. I’m going to prepare my mind the same way I did last week and the week before that. We just have to come out there ready to play. I’ve had the mindset to go out there and play hard every day, no matter who our opponent is. Just keep pushing and give it my all.”
Redshirt Sophomore DB #20 J.R. Reed
On the lack of interceptions from the secondary…
“Yeah it’s a major talking point. We’ve got to work on our hands. We’ve got to catch those. I dropped one, Aaron Davis dropped one, Tyrique McGhee dropped one. We have the opportunities, so it’s not us getting opportunities, it’s just us taking them, catching them, keeping them.”
On Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald…
“He’s a big guy. Watching on film, he wants to win. He doesn’t slide at all. He’ll score, and that’s the biggest thing that makes him tough to bring down.”
On the surge of quarterbacks who can pass and run the ball…
“I think it’s the new age quarterback. I think that’s what quarterbacks are coming to. You’ve got to be QB 2.0. You’ve got to use your feet and run the ball. And so it’s a different thing, and it puts a lot of stress on the defense. Defense has to adapt to that. I think we’ll be able to do that.”
On Reed’s father, Jake, and Mel Tucker’s common NFL background…
“It’s actually crazy. Some of the stuff my dad says, Coach Tucker says, and I just kind of laugh to myself, and so people are like, ‘What are you laughing about?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Like stuff about film, stuff about players, little things that’s almost NFL-talk. You guys are saying the same thing, so someone must be right.”

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