Monday news and notes from UGA
Nothing but respect
Although all friendships will be put aside when Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs tangle with Arkansas and former offensive line coach Sam Pittman on Saturday (4 p.m., SEC Network), the respect both coaches have for each was obvious during their respective press conferences Monday afternoon.
“He helped build the foundation of what we have now,” Smart said. “I'm extremely happy for him for this opportunity he's gotten. I know he always had a special place in his heart for Arkansas, and he got this opportunity to go back.”
As for Pittman, the Razorbacks’ first-year head coach admits he’ll be feeling a few butterflies when he looks across the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and sees the team he coached for the previous four years.
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, but I was nervous when I was an O-line coach too. It being against Georgia,” Pittman said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think Georgia would be the first team we play. I learned a lot from Kirby Smart, and he was very, very good to me. Without that, I wouldn't be the head coach at Arkansas. Am I nervous? Yes. They're an outstanding football team."
The Razorbacks and Bulldogs weren’t supposed to meet until 2021. However, thanks to Covid-19 and the ensuing scheduling shakeup by the SEC, the Razorbacks and Bulldogs are facing off a season earlier than expected.
For junior center Trey Hill, one of the many Bulldog offensive linemen recruited to Athens by Pittman, Saturday’s game will be a bit surreal. Yet despite being on a different sideline, once the game is over, Hill admitted he’ll be a big Arkansas fan moving forward.
“Yeah, something like that. Coach Pittman was my guy for two years. He recruited me, did a lot for me, so I’ll always respect him,” he said. “I respected just how family-oriented he was and his energy on and off the field. What you got on the field is what you got off the field. The way he takes care of his players and the love and support he gives them (stands out)."
Smart said the two men have stayed in touch over the past few weeks and months.
“We've talked probably more in the last month or two months of trying to play the season. Not just Sam and I, but coaches in general—the SEC coaches across the board,” Smart said. “We've shared texts with guys I'm friends with and things like that. Sam—very similar—just how they're doing, what kind of camp they've had, what they've been able to do, really how you are managing a lot of the issues and problems we've dealt with.”
One thing Smart isn't surprised by is seeing Pittman as a head coach in the SEC.
“He always had the traits of a head coach. Number 1: he’s a great leader, he’s a great person. He commands the respect of the room when he speaks,” Smart said. “He can be very emotional, and you don’t always find that with an offensive line coach, because they’re usually a little rough around the edges, and he wears his feelings on his sleeve. He's very open with his players, and I think he lets them in more than most O-line coaches do. That relationship really stands.”
Pittman isn’t the only former Georgia staffer now working for Pittman.
Others include former Georgia special teams coach Scott Fountain, former strength coaches Ed Ellis and Jamil Walker, and former staffers Fernando Velasco, Patrick Dougherty, and Jesse Stone.
Smart feeling better about receiver depth
One year after lamenting his depth at wide receiver, Smart said he’s seen improvement with his 2020 group.
“I think they've gotten better as a group. Any time you lose the juniors early that we lost the previous year with Riley (Ridley) and Mecole (Hardman), you end up with a little bit of a hole. We've tried to fill that with recruiting. I certainly think George (Pickens) had a good year last year, and the players who were developing have developed to become better—Kearis (Jackson), Matt (Landers), and we've added some freshmen that have added to that. We're getting better at the position, and we continue to get better at each and every position. That’s one where we need to grow and prepare.”
As a freshman, Pickens led the Bulldogs with 49 catches for 727 yards and eight touchdowns, numbers most expect to go up even farther this fall.
“He has a really good grasp on the overall, entire system. At times last year, he was a guy you had to put in a certain place and really explain what to do,” Smart said. “He understands a lot more now about the bigger picture—what route is the other guy running? What is the coverage? What does the coverage do to change my route? How do I affect the play? Am I primary on this play? Am I the secondary on this play? He has a better understanding of all those things, and that’s important to the rest of our offense. George is a talented player who can make us better in other ways than just catching the ball.”
…Smart said he’s also excited with what he sees from senior Demetris Robertson, who caught 33 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns last year.
“I’m excited for D-Rob. He’s a player who's improved throughout his time here. He came in and probably wasn’t as physical as he’d like to be, in terms of the SEC,” Smart said. “He’s gotten faster, stronger, bigger—he’s able to do more things. He certainly understands our system. He’s a good leader. He helps on special teams. I’m excited to see what he does this year. I’m excited to see all those wideouts.”
Covid testing remains extensive
Although nothing will change about the way the Bulldogs will travel to and from games this fall, Covid testing is obviously something that will continue in earnest through the rest of season.
“The biggest change is that everyone going on the trip will have been tested multiple, multiple times—three times in a game week—including possibly one the day of travel,” Smart said. “So, that’s the most unique thing.”
There will be no exceptions.
“They're trying to weed out anyone being in the travel party who would have Covid. Can you 100 percent do that? No. But we can come as accurate as possible, and that would be the goal,” he said. “As far as actual travel, it’s not like we're going to be completely in a bubble. We're going to be on planes and buses, transporting the same way we typically do. We're just testing everybody in that party.”
No decision yet on kicking duties
As in the quarterback race, it appears Georgia’s starting kicker duties will go right down to the wire.
Although Jake Camarda has apparently sewn up the punting chores for another year, freshman Jared Zirkel and sophomore Jack Podlesny continue to battle for the field goal and kickoff responsibilities.
“As far as placekicking, it’s still not final,” Smart said. “The kickoff duties—we’ve got a good competition going that’ll probably go all throughout this week.”
This and that
Announcers for Saturday’s game on the SEC Network will be Dave Neal, former Georgia quarterback D. J. Shockley, and Tera Talmadge. … The Bulldogs will wear red pants Saturday in tribute to the 1980 Georgia squad. … Georgia is 10-4 all-time against the Razorback.