Skip to main content

Kirby Smart Won't Let the Search for New Leaders Change Georgia's End Goal

After having a national title ripped from under their noses, the Bulldogs have sky-high expectations for the players tasked with replacing last year's leadership core—even if those players haven't been identified yet. Plus, the highlights of the Tennessee coaching search data dump, the best pulled pork in Athens and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.

ATHENS, Ga. — Imagine for a moment being a Georgia Bulldog at 12:08 a.m. on Jan. 9. Rodrigo Blankenship has just kicked a field goal from across the South Carolina border to secure a three-point lead in overtime of the national title game. Davin Bellamy has just sacked Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa for a loss of 16 yards. Never has a true freshman backup quarterback looked more like a true freshman backup quarterback than Tagovailoa did on that play.

Now imagine being a Georgia Bulldog at 12:09 a.m. on Jan. 9. Tagovailoa has picked himself up, taken the next snap and launched a rocket. DeVonta Smith has zipped past the cornerback, and the safety on that side doesn’t have enough time to rotate. Smith catches the ball and crosses the goal line. Confetti falls. Just like that, it’s over.

Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney described the feeling perfectly to tight end Isaac Nauta earlier this month. “He said it was like getting just one bite of filet mignon when you’re starving,” Nauta says. “You want to taste it again.”

That team is done, though. It will never play again. If the Bulldogs are to get another bite—or perhaps even a whole steak—they’ll have to cobble together a group capable of scoring another reservation at Chateau College Football Playoff. Kirby Smart doesn’t have to hammer this point home. All his players had to do was look around when Georgia opened spring practice last week. No Nick Chubb. No Sony Michel. No Isaiah Wynn. No Jeb Blazevich. No Roquan Smith. No Bellamy. The leaders of a team that won the SEC title and played for a national title have moved on, leaving behind a group that may ultimately have more raw talent but has yet to produce on the same level.

Smart marvels at the hype around Georgia’s most recent recruiting class, which snapped Alabama’s seven-year stranglehold on the top spot in the 247Sports composite ranking. He realizes the members of the outgoing group signed in different years, but he looks at them as one class because everyone left at the same time. This incoming class will have to work to accomplish more than that group.

But that’s what is supposed to happen. The reason Georgia fired Mark Richt after the 2015 season was because the Bulldogs should compete for SEC and national titles. Smart and his team proved that choice correct, but now the question is whether the Bulldogs can take the next logical step and become a fixture in the national title conversation. Given the amount of roster turnover at key positions, Smart could try to temper those expectations. But he understands it won’t work, so instead he’ll steer into them.

“I don’t think that I can put down those expectations. The expectations are what they are at the University of Georgia. The expectation is to win every game you play,” Smart says. “Why should it be any different? So we want to create that brand that we expect to go out and dominate our opponent. That’s what we strive to do. That’s why we go lift weights. That’s why we go and run. We want to dominate every opponent. That’s our goal. Go out and dominate our opponent. It’s not about what you guys think, what the fans think. It’s not about any of that. It’s about what we can do to make sure our players are playing at the highest level every week, week in and week out. That’s our ultimate goal.”

Smart manages in a similar fashion to his former boss Nick Saban, so he’s never going to list a national title as a goal. Dominate enough opponents play after play, and national titles happen. What Smart wants to figure out now is if he has a team capable of thinking the same way. Last year’s group certainly did. “It just kind of happened so fast,” defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter says. “We looked at it one game at a time for so long. Then you looked up and you’re like, ‘Whoa. We’re playing in the SEC championship.’ And it kind of wasn’t even like the SEC championship. Auburn beat us, and we just wanted to play them again. … Even when we played Oklahoma [in the Rose Bowl], it felt like a regular season game.”

But not every team thinks that way. Georgia didn’t lose a lot of key contributors before last season and got much better results with basically the same players. “There's a 2016 season and there is a 2017 season,” Smart says. “There wasn't a whole lot of difference in the people on the roster in those two situations, but the outcomes were completely different. Why was that? Did we have an influx of talent all of a sudden in 2017 or did we have a different demeanor? Did we have a different attitude? Did we have a chip on our shoulder? So what is going to be your motivating factor? And I think each team is very different.”

That list above of players lost includes most of Georgia’s best leaders. The moment the Bulldogs returned to the weight room following the national title game, Smart and his staff began trying to identify the next group of leaders. “If the season ends and you lose to Alabama and you come in and say, ‘This is the leadership group for next year,’ you’re not doing it the right way,” Smart says. “It’s an evolving thing. We’re meeting with kids individually. We’re watching kids interact. We’re creating some adversity so that you can see how they respond.”

Here’s an example. Coaches select a handful of players and place them into two teams. Players from competing teams pair off. They then stand facing one another and hold a 45-pound plate straight out in front of their chests. The first player to drop his weight in each one-on-one matchup loses. Once the rest of the players learn what the competition is, they must decide which team they think will win. There are punishments for the losing team and those who back it that serve as motivation for next time, but more than anything, the coaches are watching to see which players their teammates gravitate toward. The competition described above is less a test of strength than a test of will. The players who win support from their teammates again and again probably are the ones those teammates will listen to in the fourth quarter.

If that sounds intense, this spring’s practices might be even more cutthroat. Nearly every coach says every position is open. That isn’t usually the case. When Smart says it this spring, it’s mostly true. “That’s when you know you’re starting to get your program where you need it to be—when there’s not that first level of ones and a huge drop-off,” Smart says. “We’ve got more up in the air out of the 22 than we’ve ever had as far as the jobs go.” Says defensive back J.R. Reed: “It just brings the best out of everybody. If you have no competition and people think their spots are secure, they get lazy. They start to get complacent and practice starts to get sloppy. Here, you’ve got guys that are fighting for positions. Practices are going to be great.”

That competition includes quarterback, where rising sophomore Jake Fromm finds himself in the position Jacob Eason occupied last spring. Freshman Justin Fields, a five-star recruit, finds himself in the same position Fromm occupied last spring. Eason, the incumbent starter from 2016, has transferred to Washington. He hurt his knee early in the season opener and couldn’t win the job back once he got healthy. Could the true freshman usurp the sophomore again? Fromm seems much safer than Eason was, but Smart expects Fields to compete this spring just as he expected Fromm to compete this time last year*. “The situation is very similar,” Smart says. “You’ve got a guy who played as a true freshman. He played at a higher level than Jacob did, but he had an offense that was in its second year as opposed to an offense in its first year. So that helped, but he was still in his first year. I’m really excited to see what Justin does. He’s a very bright kid, very level-headed. I don’t think the competition is too big for him. He gets it.”

*If this feels like the Tagovailoa-Jalen Hurts competition last year (and this year) at Alabama or the one involving incumbent Kelly Bryant, freshman Trevor Lawrence and sophomore Hunter Johnson at Clemson, it should. One key to being one of the nation’s best programs is to never let anyone get too comfortable.

Blazevich, the tight end who was one of the more respected seniors on last year’s team, said something illuminating as he stood in front of his locker following the Bulldogs’ SEC title game win against Auburn in December. He listed the goals he had for his final collegiate season when it began. “We need to get Tennessee back. I need to beat Florida once in my career. I want the chance to play in Atlanta,” Blazevich said. “Those were my three things.” By that point, Blazevich had realized his expectations were far too modest. “How much did I underestimate myself and this team?” he said. “It taught me a lot. It revealed a lot to me.” From this point forward, everyone will expect more from Georgia.

And though the season’s final minute broke their hearts, last year’s group revealed what the Bulldogs can be. Now the remaining players have gotten a tiny taste of the thing they truly desire, and nothing else will satisfy them.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

A Random Ranking

I got sucked into one of those tweets last week that exists exclusively for the purpose of getting quote-tweeted a lot. This one asked everyone to name the most rewatchable movie. These aren’t the necessarily the best movies—though some are—but they are the movies you’ll leave on until their conclusion if you happen upon them while flipping channels. Here are my top 10.

1. The Fifth Element
2. Fletch
3. The Godfather
4. The Godfather Part II
5. Major League
6. Goodfellas
7. Spaceballs
8. Big Fish
9. Beverly Hills Cop II
10. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Three And Out

1. Tennessee and former athletic director John Currie agreed last week on a separation agreement that will pay Currie $2.5 million. The school then released the agreement along with thousands of pages of emails, text messages and direct messages related to Currie’s part in the Volunteers’ football coaching search. Blake Toppmeyer of the Knoxville News-Sentinel combed through the documents to detail just how dysfunctional the search was after top target Dan Mullen slow-played Tennessee and took the Florida job. The Vols moved on to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano at that point, and all hell broke loose from there. The search moved from Mike Gundy to Jeff Brohm to Dave Doeren and then to Mike Leach before Currie was called back to Knoxville and then suspended. On Dec. 1, Tennessee named Phillip Fulmer athletic director. A few days later, Fulmer hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

2. Perhaps my favorite text exchange involving Currie was the one on Nov. 16 that showed even a future rocket scientist—who happens to be a former Tennessee quarterback—believed some of the vivid message board fan fiction being written about Jon Gruden.

Josh Dobbs: Good evening Mr. Currie. Sooo are the rumors true?

Currie: Which rumors?

Dobbs: A lot of buzz around Coach Gruden. Wasnt sure if it is legit or hearsay.

Currie: Geez even you?

3. Nope. It turns out my favorite texts to Currie came from Brady Hoke, who served as Tennessee’s interim coach after Butch Jones was fired. These all arrived in all capital letters.


(Currie’s response? “New phone who dis?” OK, not really. But he did write “I’m sorry who is this” to Hoke two minutes after receiving Hoke’s text.)



What’s Eating Andy?

One of the more amazing aspects of the Tennessee document dump was just how much business got done using Twitter direct messages. It seemed to be the preferred method of communication for Currie, several coaches and a major agent.

I’m going to have to stick with voice calls and (maybe) text messages. If I tried to convey sensitive information through direct messages, I’d probably wind up tweeting out my cell phone number about once every 10 minutes. I noticed agent Jimmy Sexton didn’t go for any of that mess. The only message from Sexton revealed no useful information except that he wanted to speak to Currie on the phone.

What’s Andy Eating?

I’m not a barbecue xenophobe, so you’ll never see a statement from me that “Real barbecue is pulled/sliced/chopped pork/brisket/sausage/mutton.” It’s all delicious, and it’s fun to learn why each region wound up gravitating toward its preferred meat, cutting style and sauce (or lack thereof). But most of us grew up with one particular barbecue style, and if we want to activate our nostalgia receptors, only that style will do. For me, that style is pulled pork.

I was born in South Carolina. My family was scattered around South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. That’s pretty much the entirety of pulled pork country. So when we got barbecue from a restaurant or made it for a family gathering, we ate pulled pork sandwiches. If we were in Columbia or Charleston, that pork came slathered in mustard-based sauce. If we were with my mom’s family in Selma, Ala., it was covered in a tomato-based sauce. Regardless of topping, pulled pork was the meat that made me fall in love with barbecue.

That’s why the wave of memories hit so hard when my server at Pulaski Heights BBQ set down the large pulled pork sandwich I’d ordered. I use the term “sandwich” lightly, because for $5.50 this Athens gem drops a bun next to a giant pile of some of the prettiest pulled pork I’d ever seen. The juice glistened on the meat. A reddish smoke ring covered the sections closest to the skin. Flecks of black bark dotted the landscape. The shades were reversed, but these were like the diamonds gleaming from the wall of the mine. Those bark bits would make for the best bites.


And those bites were incredible. Pulaski Heights offers a vinegar-based sauce and a tomato-based sauce, but neither one is necessary. On the bread or by the forkful, the moist, smoky pork brought every good barbecue memory from childhood surging back.

It also made me realize that I had underestimated Pulaski Heights. I had been there before, and I had written about it before. On my first visit several years ago, I ate the Redneck Reuben. This sandwich packs thick-cut, housemade bacon, collard greens, pimento cheese and ranch dressing between two slices of Texas toast. It’s as delicious as its ingredient list suggests. The chewy, smoky bacon blends beautifully with the creamy pimento cheese. I loved this sandwich so much that I included it on my list of the top 25 college town dishes. But when I’d visited, I hadn’t been hungry enough to try the more basic barbecue offerings. (I did have a cup of the pork green chile soup, which was excellent.) I wish I had, because then it wouldn’t have taken me until now to realize that Pulaski Heights is not just the best barbecue joint in Athens; it’s one of the best in the South.


I was very hungry this time, so after that pulled pork I re-evaluated the Redneck Reuben. (Yep. Still great.) I also tried a quarter-rack of ribs, which were sweet, salty and smoky and pulled off the bone with a slight tug. I also had a few smoked wings, which were big and juicy but could have used a little less of the Valentina hot sauce they came swimming in. The folks at Pulaski Heights need to have faith in the taste of the meat and let it shine, just as they do with the pulled pork.

Even if the rest of the menu ceases to exist, I’ll still go back to Pulaski Heights every time I’m in Athens for that pork. It may be a barbecue basic, but when it’s cooked as well as Pulaski Heights cooks it, precious little can top it.