ATHENS, Ga. — Sometimes, Kirby Smart just likes to disagree with the premise of a question, so maybe that’s what this was about. Or maybe this was something else: a reminder of how much has changed about Georgia’s offense.
How would you evaluate the run game, Smart was asked Saturday, after his top-ranked Georgia team routed Ball State 45-3, looking very good on offense unless you overlooked the mere 99 rushing yards and the pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry.
“Well, define the run game,” Smart replied.
Handing the ball off, the reporter answered.
It was a trap. Smart the contrarian — and a convert to the ways of modern spread football — went into a mini-tutorial. You may see a pass to the outside and think it was just a pass, but it was off a run-pass option and thus “an extension of the run,” as Smart put it. Or actually a run.
“So if you say, ‘I define the run game as between the tackles,’ I’m never pleased with that,” Smart said. “I’m only upset when the extension to the run game is poor, and the run game you’re defining is poor. But I’m happy with the extension of the run game. … So you’ve got to be good at something. And right now we’re better at that than we are the interior run game.”
So to review: Yes, that’s Kirby Smart, accused not long ago of being old school, too wedded to the run game, now downplaying the need to run the ball. At least as we football neophytes define running it. Man-ball is dead. Georgia, even after Todd Monken left and Mike Bobo replaced him, is now a full-fledged passing team that …
Well, hold that thought too. If you’re not quite sure what to make of this Georgia offense so far, you have company in the people who play in it.
“I feel like the offense is still coming together, still trying to form an identity,” senior receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint said. “But each day at practice, every day we go out there we’re getting better. We’re working. We’re trying to get to that point in the season where we’re able to go out there, no mess-ups, no mistakes on plays, and execute at a high level like we used to do.”
Carson Beck, the quarterback who looked much more comfortable in his second career start, also used the “i” word in the future tense when he mentioned “my overall confidence in the offense as we continue to evolve and find our identity. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to improve.”
Full disclosure: My memory bank doesn’t have mentions of when exactly in past seasons Georgia knew its offensive identity. It was definitely the season opener last year. But it wasn’t the season opener in 2021.
Full disclosure part II: Identity is a subjective thing. To some, it could be whether you’re a passing or running team. To some, it could just be whether you’re going to score a lot of points or not.
It has been apparent for a while that Georgia will be more of a passing team. The first two games have backed that up. But whether it can be great or merely good — or even average — remains on the table. Of course, if the defense is great, the offense doesn’t necessarily have to be great too. But there’s no guarantee the defense will be great every game. It wasn’t the first time the Bulldogs played Alabama two years ago. Georgia’s offense was more inconsistent that year and couldn’t overcome it. But when the defense struggled against Ohio State last year, the offense overcame it.
That offense has since lost its offensive coordinator, quarterback, leading rusher and left tackle, so a few bumps early this season may be expected. By that standard, the offense is coming along fine, scoring 40-plus points the first two weeks and showing early improvement: 4.1 yards per play in the opener and 6.3 yards per play in the second week against what should be a tougher opponent.
Beck, in particular, looked much more confident on Saturday.
“I mean, the first week I was just trying to feel it out,” he said with a chuckle. “I hadn’t started in four years, and this week, I really learned from last week, as far as how I approach Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, every day of the week, and then how do I actually prepare for the game when it comes to Saturday, and how do I feel once I get in the game?”
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There was also a glimpse of a new weapon and a hint of more to come: Dillon Bell, a promising freshman receiver in 2022, was used Saturday at tailback, a position he played in high school. And he proceeded to score a 21-yard touchdown, making two nice cuts. While Georgia has tailback depth problems, Bell said he’s still meeting with the receivers.
But what we saw from Bell on Saturday was only a sliver of what the team has planned for him, according to Beck.
“He brings a different element,” Beck said. “He runs hard, he’s really good with the ball in his hands. it also gives us an opportunity, which we didn’t really do today, to match him up on a linebacker, or on a safety, where otherwise he might be on a corner where he’s spread out wide. It’s almost like a Deebo Samuel deal with how the 49ers used him, is what we’re trying to do.”
Samuel played college ball at South Carolina, which plays at Georgia next week. Perhaps unimportant, or perhaps it’s a nice time to whip out more of the playbook. The nature of Georgia’s schedule is such that Bobo (consulting with Smart) is gradually unveiling the playbook while spreading the touches around to see what they have.
Brock Bowers, a possible Heisman Trophy contender, had all of one touch on Saturday. Ladd McConkey, a key receiver on two national championship teams, has yet to play because of a back issue.
When I asked Smart about the “i” word after the game, I prefaced it by asking if it was more what the coaches decided it would be in the offseason or how the team developed when the season started? Smart went into contrarian mode again.
“It’s neither,” he said. “It’s what you have. What you have in the offseason may not be what you have in the season, which is what we’re learning right now.”
He mentioned tailbacks Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton not being as healthy as they were at the start of spring. Another hint Smart is giving about this being a passing team.
“What we’ve been really good at is spreading the ball around,” Smart said. “I think you saw that again today. We’re not sitting here throwing it to one guy all the time.”
Does that mean a poor interior run game can just be shrugged off and won’t be necessary? Maybe not. Maybe the hope within Georgia’s coaches’ room is more defensive coordinators will be impressed with Beck and the outside passing game, stretch their defenders out, making the inside more vulnerable. Or maybe Smart is telling us to stop obsessing about the interior run game because that’s not where the game is won anymore.
There are other areas of needed improvement. Smart granted the perimeter blocking was “up and down.” That has limited explosive plays in both games. Darnell Washington isn’t walking through that door, so it’s just something Georgia will have to solve by players blocking better, or personnel being used differently.
There’s also the slow starts to games: Georgia didn’t score in the first quarter on Saturday, although Smart pointed out the Bulldogs missed a chip-shot field goal on the first drive and only had two possessions in the first quarter, thanks to the new clock rules and Ball State trying to win by bleeding clock. (It didn’t work in the second and third quarters.)
The last two years it was “either you’re elite or you’re not.” That hasn’t been retired, but Smart added an addendum on the work in progress his team is right now: “What I’m trying to do is get elite at getting better.” That goes for all three phases: defense, special teams and offense. The latter, of the three, seems to arouse the most worry among fans. But the team itself appears unworried.
Rosemy-Jacksaint was the one who mentioned trying to find an identity. He’s a senior and has been around for this metamorphosis from man-ball to … well, whatever Georgia will be this year. So he was asked: Is it OK the offense doesn’t have its identity yet?
“The season’s still young,” he said. “It’s the second game. I feel like we have more time to find out who we are as an offense and game plan and play through it. Try to find out how we’re going to get better and be explosive and put points on the board.”
(Top photo of Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)