It’s been a three years since Georgia played in the SEC Championship Game, a drought long enough to end the Mark Richt era.
Richt remains a popular figure in the locker room and among many Bulldogs fans, but new coach Kirby Smart isn’t worried about any lingering love for his predecessor.
“Coach Richt is a good friend of mine,” Smart said Tuesday at his first SEC Football Media Days. “I respect coach Richt and worked for him for a year and respect the man he is and respect what he stands for. I don’t think it’s a competition between coach Richt and I to win over this team. I think you earn that by the way you behave and the way you perform. Every kid I’ve been around as a football player, they want their coaches to make them better as men and as players.”
Still, there’s no doubt Smart, who played defensive back at Georgia from 1995-98 and served as running backs coach in 2005, wants to put his own stamp on things.
Smart spent 11 seasons on Nick Saban’s staff, including the last nine at Alabama mostly as defensive coordinator, and believes his challenge is to build a program and not merely a team.
“A team is a group of young men playing together,” Smart said. “The program is the entirety of that.”
It’s academic support, nutrition, strength and player development along with physical and emotional wellness.
“Obviously, (Georgia) made an amazing hire of coach Smart,” senior offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow said. “There’s a lot of energy around the program now.”
The players have been quick to adjust to Smart’s style.
“He’s a man that, as soon as he steps on the field, he’s ready to get the job done,” junior strong safety Dominick Sanders said. “He doesn’t have time for people that are coming out slow-moving.”
Health has been an issue for the Bulldogs in recent seasons and it’s already an issue that’s dogged the program during the offseason.
Star running back Nick Chubb suffered a season-ending left knee injury last October and is still recovering from reconstructive surgery.
“Nick is progressing really well,” Smart said. “Nick is working hard. I repeat that every time I talk. I don’t think anybody in this room would expect anything less from Nick Chubb. This guy is passionate. It means something to him.”
Smart said Chubb is a full participant in summer workouts, but that may change when the pads come on for fall camp.
“Ultimately, he’s got to gain confidence in that knee back, and he’s taking the right steps in that direction,” Smart said.
Chubb’s backup, Sony Michel, who rushed for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns after taking over as the starter last season, suffered a broken left forearm in an all-terrain vehicle crash earlier this month.
Smart wasn’t sure when Michel might be ready to return.