Kirby Smart, Lorenzo Carter, Terry Godwin, Rodrigo Blankenship, Sony Michel and Aaron Davis discuss the SEC Championship Game and what it will be like to face Auburn again.
Q. Given that Jake was under duress in the last game and the run game wasn’t what you wanted, how did he perform and what do you need to get him out of this game?
Kirby: Just need to play the quarterback position, make good decisions, put us in the right plays. It’s really important he plays with poise. He’s under duress in every game that I’ve seen. The quarterback position in this league, you’re going to be under duress. It’s one of those that he has to execute the plan, not try to be superhuman, allow his play makers around him to help make plays and play within the system. Big part of this game is not making turnovers, and we’ve got to try to force some on them and not turn it over ourselves.
Q. D’Andre Walker is a guy that’s been getting a little bit more playing time lately. The, what kind of effect could he have on the game on Saturday?
Kirby: He’s done a good job. A very athletic, hard-to-block guy, plays with great toughness, great effort. He played really well, looking back at the Tech game, he was able to help us. It was a situation where it fit what he does well too. So he’s improving, and he’s very conscientious about his special teams work and his defensive end work.
Q. In the last game against Auburn, Nick and Sony had combined for 48 yards, which kind of serves as an outlier to the rest of their performances this year. Have you noticed any motivations from them entering this game? And what is the key to preparation in terms of gaining some traction in the run game with those guys this week?
Kirby: Yeah, run game is all about movement. You’ve got to get movement. When they run the ball well at Auburn, they get movement. When we run the ball well at Georgia we usually get movement. When you don’t get movement up front, it’s tough. It’s tough sledding, especially in our league. So I think Sony and Nick, they understood going into that game it was going to be tough. Certainly didn’t expect it to be that tough. But it’s one of the things that we’ve moved on past that. We’re focused on this opportunity, and those two guys will be at their best, I know that, because they’re competitors and they’ll give us everything they’ve got.
Q. When you took the job and went off to do your National Championship duties still at Alabama, you were asked when Georgia would be in position to play for championships, and you pretty much ducked the question. Now that Georgia is about to play for a championship, has it happened as fast as you thought? Is it slower than you thought? Are you on schedule?
Kirby: I’ve repeatedly said the same thing, there is no schedule for winning championships. Our job at University of Georgia is to educate, get degrees, make sure we make the student-athlete a better person, and to win championships. So the objective is to get the most out of every team that we can, and that’s what we tell our coaching staff every week. Our job is to prepare them to be the best they can in the game to get the most out of them. At the end of the season, we look back and say did we get the most out of this unit, this team, that we possibly could withstanding injuries, withstanding circumstances that you can’t control. That’s what we’ll do at the end of this year and we’ll do the same thing the following year. But I think everybody wants to say that this is the schedule. There is no schedule. The only thing there is is what you have and what you do with what you have. So I’m going to leave it to you guys to decide what the schedule is or what the term is, because that’s what you guys do. That’s not really for us internally — we want to do the best we can with what we’ve got, and that’s what we’re trying to do this year.
Q. When you’re charged with defending an offense like Auburn that has so many different fakes and whatnot, talk about the difficulty for the linebackers and the corners to not end up taking on blocks and getting them around them?
Kirby: Yeah, I don’t know exactly what you’re asking about there. The fakes, I mean, they’re very good at perimeter runs, and they also are very good exposing your edges. A lot of that is based on the guys with the ball in their hands. Stove, he’s an unbelievable, great athlete that runs rocket sweeps really well. When you say every time Stove comes in motion, they run a rocket sweep, no, they compliment that really well with the power run game inside. So with those two combinations, you’re having to defend two things all the time. They’ve got a really good power run game. People think they don’t. I’ve played them for a long time, they do.
They have physical players. They can run gap plays, they can run zone plays and they can run on the perimeter. Then when you add the dimension of a quarterback who can throw the ball and be elusive enough to create with his feet, you hit the perfect storm. Right now they’re playing at a high level because they’ve got all those factors.
So it’s important for us to keep our edges, but we can’t give up movement at the same time. When you start giving up movement on these guys, they’ll crease you and gas you and do a good job. And Kerryon’s incredible at being here one second and the next second he’s out there on the perimeter and can bounce out on you.
Q. Since their loss to LSU, Jarrett Stidham’s been 68% in each game — 68% or better in each game. How do you disrupt him in the passing game to keep him from being as accurate as he’s been these last five games?
Kirby: Well, I think you’ve got to do things. You’ve got to mix coverages. You’ve got to be able to get pressure. A lot of their passes sometimes are seven-man protections. So everybody’s screaming and yelling about not getting pressure. When they’re protecting with seven, unless you bring eight, you’re going to have trouble getting there.
So they do a good job with mixing up their protections. They do a good job of putting him in situations to be successful and to be honest, he’s a really good quarterback who, I think, has gotten the greatest amount of improvement during the year of any player that I’ve seen from early in the year, which we’ve got games we played early in the year until now.
I think he’s got confidence in the system. He’s gotten used to the SEC. I think he’s playing at a high level.
Q. If you could update us on injuries with Trenton and Christian Payne? If you’ve seen any change in them. The second question, just the noise factor, how many of your problems might have something to do with the environment and how the environment here might clean that up?
Kirby: On Trenton and Christian, we expect both of them to be fine. We haven’t practiced yesterday, so we don’t really know. Trenton actually played in the game. He came back in and played. He should be fine. Christian I’ll know more on today.
As far as the environment, I actually thought that we handled that part pretty well from an offensive standpoint of functioning, snap count, timing, that kind of thing. The atmosphere in this weekend is going to be probably just as loud in a lot of ways, because you could make a case that we’ll have more fans there. But from what we’ve been told, it’s an extremely loud place.
So crowd noise will always be a factor when you play indoors. We’ll prepare for that. I don’t think that the crowd noise there had an impact on the timing or any plays. Jake did a good job handling that. I think their defense had a lot to do with the struggles that we have because they’ve got a really good defensive front.
Q. I know you’ve talked so much about the seniors this year, and trying to figure out another way to ask it. And you’ve said a few times you just kind of know this team knows how to handle moments. How much of that has to do with these seniors? Did you kind of find them this way when you got here two years ago, or were there some moments where you think they developed that culture?
Kirby: I think you’re always developing. I mean, I think culture is created, and culture is taught. The one thing we tried to do as an organization since they got here is put them in situations — whether it’s meeting with certain people that we bring in from outside organizations, meeting with speakers, we try to put them in leadership positions. Throughout the summer, we try to put them in leadership positions.
So the culture is created by what situations you put them in and they grow in those situations. They learn. They learn how to handle situations, and over the course of two years, they’ve gotten better.
Now, were they good kids and good players when we got here? Absolutely. This senior class is a good class. It’s got some good players in it. So I think that’s important to have that foundation of talent, but you develop the leaders. They develop their leadership qualities throughout their course of being here.
So each one of them has experienced things throughout their time here that’s made a better leader. I’m a firm believer that Sony and Nick are the leaders they are because of the hard times they’ve been through. I mean, each one of them has been out with significant injuries during their career. That’s helped them be a stronger leader. Same way with Lorenzo and Davin, they’ve become leaders because George Jenkins was a good leader. Leonard Floyd was a good leader. We’ve had people come in and meet with them and talk to them about the ways we want to lead. I meet with them.
We try to teach that and coach that so that they can be the right person in the clutch, and it’s not always perfect. But we certainly aspire for them to be better men because they have played here.
Q. A lot was made of the dominance the SEC West teams had in this game recently. Coming from that at this vision, were there some characteristics that you wanted your team to have in terms of physical play that might be different from what you noticed in the East?
Kirby: Yeah, I mean, the most physical team usually wins whatever the game is. Doesn’t matter if it’s SEC East, West, crossover, championship, physicality is the part of the game. Who controls the line of scrimmage? It just so happens the teams from the West have controlled the line of scrimmage more often than the teams from the east. So that’s an objective in every game. That probably won’t ever change in the game of football. So, I mean, that’s an objective for this game, but it’s not about East or West. It’s about the game of football.
Q. If Kerryon Johnson can’t play, does that change your game plan at all?
Kirby Well, I think you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to understand where a team’s strengths and weaknesses are. They’ve got a lot of strengths. They’ve got other backs that are good, probably not near as good as Kerryon. But they’ve got quality backs and they’re SEC backs. They’ve also got ways of creating a running game that Gus has done outside of Kerryon. He does a good job of sharing those carries.
They’ve got a quarterback who don’t mistake him for a runner, because he can run the ball when you least expect it. They have several designed runs for him against Alabama. When you start running the quarterback, it creates a really tough dynamic.
So they’ve got other ways to get carries. I fully expect him to play, and we’ll have to deal with it either way.
Q. What are the recruiting advantages and disadvantages of playing in this game?
Kirby: I always believe there are a lot more advantages than disadvantages because you can show what’s on paper. The publicity you get and just the amount of exposure you get from playing in this game, CBS, and everybody in the country will be tuned in. There is no price tag you can put on that.
The only disadvantage is somebody sitting in your kid’s home this week and they’re doing an in-home visit, and they’re getting to sell their program while you’re preparing for a game.
But most of the people that we’re recruiting, they understand that we can’t be there right now, and they recognize that we’ll be there as soon as we can. That begins after this game.
LORENZO CARTER: My thoughts on this upcoming Championship Game, I’m just excited. It’s a lot of energy, a lot of excitement around Athens. Getting a chance to play for a championship is one of the reasons I came back for my senior year. And then just getting a chance to redeem ourselves. We didn’t play up to par the last time. So it’s a lot on the line.
Q. I wanted to ask you how did you feel you personally played in that first game against Auburn? I know it wasn’t a good overall team game, but what did you personally feel your game was that day, and what do you think you’ve got to do to just play a better football game in the Championship Game?
Lorenzo Carter: Yeah, I definitely didn’t play my best game. As a defense as a whole, we didn’t play up to our standard. I hold myself to a higher standard, so I didn’t play well at all.
Just got to come in there with the right mindset ready for a 60-minute battle, four quarters, and ready to shed blood, tears, and whatever it takes to get this championship.
Q. Hey, Lorenzo, last week before the Tech game, you were just talking about how you couldn’t leave being 1-2 against Tech. You guys have avenged a lot of losses from a year ago. How much does revenge — how much has revenge played into what you guys have been able to do this year?
Lorenzo Carter Yeah, revenge, we look back at it, and we see what we’ve done, but coming into it, we really don’t try to focus too much on that because, like Coach Smart tells us, we don’t try to put a lot of emotional energy into games because that will drain you out. That will have you tired in the fourth quarter when you really need it.
So we try to stay focused and keep going to work and keep chopping wood, taking it one play at a time, one game at a time.
Q. So there’s no revenge from three weeks ago or whatever going into this game? If there is, how much — when the game actually kicks off, does that stuff go away after three or four plays no matter how excited you are?
Lorenzo Carter: Oh, yeah, that stuff definitely goes away. All the emotion, all the thoughts you had before a game, the feelings go away once you start hitting and once the bullets start flying. We’ll go out there, and we’ll — I’m sure people will be excited. We’ll have a lot of energy, a lot of emotions, but when it comes down to it, those emotions aren’t going to win the game. It’s how you play.
Q. Lorenzo, Saturday the Alabama guys talked about not reading their keys on defense, and they talked a lot about what they called the Auburn eye candy with motions and formations. I wonder how much eye discipline it takes to play Auburn and what you guys have to work on this week.
Lorenzo Carter: Yeah, it takes a lot of eye discipline, like you said. It’s a lot of eye candy. It’s a lot of things that go on, tricks and gimmicks that you can get your eyes in the wrong place very easily.
But it all comes down to trusting one another and trusting our defense. Our coaches are going to put us in the right spot. They’re going to have a great game plan. And then we just have to trust each other out there on the field that each person is going to do their job so there are no holes.
Q. Did it help that you saw it already this year, that you kind of — you got used to a lot of the formations and motions?
Lorenzo Carter: Yeah, it helps, especially that we just played them recently, within the month. We’ve seen it recently. We still have a good memory of what happened, and we’ll watch the film — we’re watching film, seeing what they do, what they like to do. We’ll be a lot more comfortable this second game, second go around.
Q. You’ve talked a little bit about the first game. What did you all learn from that first game that you, in your mind, you definitely think will be an improvement in being able to win the game on Saturday?
Lorenzo Carter: I think eye discipline. It all comes down to just read your keys and just doing the right thing. I think we learned that it’s not going to be easy. We already knew nothing was going to be easy playing in the SEC, playing in league play. But we realized that we’re just going to have to keep our eyes in the right place and keep our heads focused and stay locked in for a 60-minute battle.
Q. Yeah, just curious how you guys are approaching the game considering that it’s question marks whether Kerryon Johnson will play because of the injury.
Lorenzo Carter: I think our coaching staff is going to do a great job just preparing us for a lot of different things, but you have to prepare to face a back like that. He’s a great back. He can make a lot of plays, and he’s a game changer. So you have to be ready for him to play at 100 percent.
Q. Hi, Lorenzo. I’m wondering — and this goes back more probably to your preparation for the first Auburn game — but did Jarrett Stidham surprise you a little bit? If you watch the early season film, he’s kind of feeling his way still a little bit. Did he surprise you at all with how well he played?
Lorenzo Carter: Not really. Coming into the game, we knew he was going to be one of the best quarterbacks we played all year. He went out and played a lot with his legs and arms. We’ll be out there ready to try to keep him in the pocket, try to keep him contained, and just cause pressure, make him uncomfortable.
Q. Lorenzo, did you watch some of the Alabama game versus Auburn the other day? Did you get to see the film already?
Lorenzo Carter: Yes, I got a chance to watch it.
Q. How did Auburn succeed so well in getting Alabama’s defense out of the middle of the field? I mean, they had crossing patterns, no linebackers there, what Nick Saban called a rat in the hole. How do you think they did that?
Lorenzo Carter: I mean, I can’t tell you exactly how, but I mean, Auburn, their offense is a lot going on. It’s a lot of distractions, a lot of things that — a lot of options that they can hit you with. So I mean, it just comes down to trusting the coaches and trusting the game plan and then just making sure you do your job and not trying to get too greedy or seep into other people’s gaps.
TERRY GODWIN: I mean, this week we’ve got to go out and practice hard and be prepared for whatever they bring, they throw at us Saturday. We know they’re going to come out with a couple of tricks and gadgets and all that type of stuff because that’s what Auburn does. But I mean, we’ve got to be prepared for anything.
Q. Terry, the offense, that was y’all’s worst game of the season. Was it more of what they did on defense or what y’all didn’t do on offense that you’ve been able to do all year?
Terry Godwin: I mean, it was more of self-inflicted wounds. We made a lot of mistakes, and we seen that coming from the film we watched the day after, and it was just the little things that mattered that we didn’t do, and we feel like we’ve got to come back and correct those and be better this weekend.
Q. Adding Ben Cleveland to the offensive line, do you think that will also help you all be able to run the ball a little more effectively so that you can spread out their defense a little more?
Terry Godwin: I mean, if that’s who Coach feels like is going to do the best job at that position and to help our team do the things that we need to do, then we’re all for it. He’s going to be the best player that we know he can be. He’s going to give it his all.
Q. Terry, that first game, like I said, against Auburn, you think the Auburn secondary did anything to kind of throw you all off your routes or anything? Or just seemed to be a case of them getting so much pressure on Jake there wasn’t a lot of time? What would you say, just a combination of all that, maybe why you didn’t have the success on offense that you wanted?
Terry Godwin: I kind of put the blame on us receivers because we wasn’t getting open quite as often as we should or fast enough for Fromm to find us. Once you’re doing that, the pocket is going to collapse sooner or later. So you’ve got to get open and give him that target to throw to. It’s kind of something we didn’t do, and we’ve been getting better at it since then.
Q. Terry, how big is the revenge factor this week given what took place down at Auburn?
Terry Godwin: It’s not so much of revenge. It’s just so much of us underclassmen wanting to send our senior class out on top and send them out the right way. It’s just Auburn, they’re just having to come back up in our way again, and we just have to go out and defeat them.
Q. I wanted to ask you, as a return guy yourself, how much do you appreciate — how has Mecole Hardman been so successful in these recent weeks? Obviously, he had a huge game at Auburn. He had a huge early punt return the other day at Tech. What has he been able to do these last three or four weeks to really turn up his return game?
Terry Godwin: He’s been amazing, just being able to give our offense great field position, from a punt return standpoint to a kickoff return standpoint. Just being able to get out there and utilize his speed and vision and be the playmaker we know he can be with the ball in his hand. I mean, he’s done a tremendous job.
Q. You just talked about taking some ownership as far as receivers not getting as open as you guys should have or could have on a consistent basis. So how much are you guys motivated to make more plays and give Fromm more opportunities to make plays?
Terry Godwin: I mean, we’re very motivated because, I mean, that game just goes to show that we can’t relax and just be on our heels. We’ve got to always be on our toes and be prepared for anything. I mean, there’s just the thought inside of the receiving room, we’re going to come out and not let anybody else do that to us or even Auburn do that to us again. We’ve just got to go out there and be on our “A” game.
Q. I just wanted to ask how much better do you think Auburn is going to be from three weeks ago? And how much better are you guys from three weeks ago?
Terry Godwin: I mean, we’re a lot better. We’ve been fixing all the nicks and bugs we had messed up against them three weeks ago, and they’ve been on their “A” game as well. So it’s going to be a great game, but the better team is going to come out on top, and I feel like that’s going to be us.
Q. Hey, Terry, do you see playing Auburn twice in one season as an advantage or a disadvantage when the SEC Championship on the line
Terry Godwin: I would say an advantage because I mean now you got a lot more film than what you had from previous years or whatever, now seeing the recent stuff they’ve been doing or the recent stuff they did against us. So I mean, you’ve just got a lot more film to watch on them and a lot more knowledge than you had before to see what they’re going to throw at you and all this type stuff.
Rodrigo: Yeah, it’s the SEC Championship Game. It’s the biggest game of the year that we’ve got. It’s just going to be another great opportunity for us to go out and just execute a great game plan against a great opponent.
Q. Rodrigo, have you seen a lot of Auburn’s Daniel Carlson? He’s been a great kicker the last three or four years and one of the top in the country. Have you gotten a chance to watch him much, and what do you think of him?
Rodrigo: Yeah, he’s an incredible kicker. He’s a finalist for the Groza Award, and I think that just goes to show just how talented of a guy he is. He’s been at the top of the SEC for a long time now, and he’s someone that I look up to as a model that I just want to be able to emulate his success in field goal kicking and kickoffs. So I think it’s really great to just have the opportunity to match up with him again because he’s an incredible talent.
Q. Hey, Rodrigo, just your thoughts of Mercedes Benz. Have you been in it yet? How important is it to kind of get familiar with the new surroundings?
Rodrigo: I have not been there yet. I was in the Dome last year for our season opener against North Carolina, but I have not been in Mercedes Benz yet. But honestly, I don’t think it’s going to — I don’t think it’s going to matter too much just because we’re going to be playing in a closed environment, so we’re not going to have to worry about any wind or rain or cold or anything like that. It’s just going to be perfect weather for game day.
Q. And then what is it like when — I mean, you’ve got a teammate, Mecole Hardman, who’s been on an absolute tear as far as kickoff returns and punt returns. What’s it like being a kicker facing someone like that? How much do you try to — do you put extra pressure on yourself to try to — you’ve had a lot of success with touchbacks this year. Do you put a little extra pressure on yourself to try to boom them all into the end zone when you’ve got someone like Mecole standing back there?
Rodrigo: Well, he’s someone else’s problem, not mine. There are some very talented return men in the SEC and across the country, and Mecole is at the top of that list for a lot of people. But as far as like going out for kickoff, the game plan is just to hit touchbacks at the highest rate you possibly can, and you hit a ball good enough to a certain extent, and no one’s going to be bringing it out. You just hit it clear out of the end zone, no one’s going to be able to get to it.
That’s the plan going out for every kickoff. It doesn’t always happen like that, but I wouldn’t say there’s any extra pressure just because I know that, if I strike the ball like I know I’m capable of, no one’s going to be able to get to it.
Q. Rodrigo, I know a lot was made last year about were you supposed to be there, and then there was a scholarship issue at the beginning of the season. But watching you in person, you have definitely improved your game this year. What did you do in the off-season? And then how much has that helped, getting that scholarship, as far as ease of mind as you prepare each week?
Rodrigo: Well, I did some — I did a little bit of tweaking with my technique. Sorry, that was a little bit of a mouthful there. I changed my kickoff approach to approach in in a little bit more efficient angle to the ball. I’ve changed my stance a little bit on field goals to allow me to just have a much cleaner and more freely moving swing. I think that those things have been a major help, as well as just getting in the weight room and getting as big and strong as I can. All those things have been big factors for just allowing me to make some improvements for this year. So, yeah, it’s just about just doing those things.
As far as the scholarship is concerned, I mean, I know every day that that’s something that I need to prove that I’ve earned. It was a great relief to be able to have that and to just know that the hard work has paid off, but at the same time, I also know that, if I want to prove to everyone that I’m worthy of it, that I need to just keep working, keep chopping, and keep grinding every single day.
On this week compared to any other week….
“It feels the same. For the past three years that I’ve been here this is one of our weeks off so it just feels like another game. It is another week of preparation. But our guys are excited that we have another game and to be on the big stage at the SEC Championship. At the end of the day though it is just another game.”
On facing Auburn again…
“We get another chance to prepare for this game. We have to try to eliminate some our mistakes we made in the game and try to capitalize on them.”
“I think it is just the execution level. Everyone has to do their job and be on the same page. That will help us be successful.”
“Those walk-thrus are big. They are essential to this team. It helps guys focus – not physically, but mentally. You have to lock-in. It is tough for a college football team, because there are a lot of guys that probably aren’t going to play that will be out there So everyone just has to lock in and be on the same page. I think our team manages to handle that well.”
“Discipline always has been one of our mottos. We have to follow it, because Auburn is a team that capitalizes on mistakes. We have to stay poised and do what we do. We can’t act out of character. We just need to go out there and play our ball game.”
On moving on from the last Auburn game…
“You can’t get caught up in the results from last week or two weeks ago. It will do you a disservice in terms of preparing for the next team. If you get caught up on if it was a big win or a big loss last week then that could deter your mind from the team that is in front of you.”
On fixing mistakes…
“Discipline. They hit us with a couple reverses, outside leverage type things as far as set and containing. For the defensive backs, we have to crack and replace. I know I missed that a couple times when my man came in to crack and I didn’t fill out on the outside to make sure the ball doesn’t get out there. Being disciplined on both sides and communication. We can correct those things and limit those big plays.”
On stadium atmospheres...
“Auburn is a tough place to play. They have the new big jumbo-tron which keeps the fans up and rocking throughout the game. I remember playing in the Georgia Dome for the North Carolina game so I know it is exciting. I’m sure the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to just the same.”
On playing in the conference championship…
“The last time we have been here was the year before I got here. We are used to having this week off, but it is definitely exciting. It is what you work for. We’ve been working hard the past 11 months to get to this point. All the guys are super eager to get out there to put on our best performance.”