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Coach Smart and Players Gear Up for College Football Playoff in Miami



ATHENS, Ga. --- University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart, along with a tandem of offensive players previewed the College Football Playoff/Orange Bowl matchup against Michigan. The Bulldogs and Wolverines kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on New Year’s Eve in Miami Gardens, Florida.

On Monday, Coach Smart, and senior John Fitzpatrick and Redshirt Sophomore Warren McClendon offered the following comments.

Head Coach Kirby Smart

On the quarterbacks…

Yeah we don’t disclose that information, we just talk about the guys that are doing their job. All four of those guys have done a tremendous job working. Brock (Vandergriff) has been giving us a great picture down on the scout team end. JT (Daniels) and Stetson (Bennett) are both doing a really good job simulating the offense that Coach Monken wants to do. Like I talk about all the team, we are going to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win. I am really proud of the way both of those guys have practiced. We have done four or five camp-type practices and two that were really focused on Michigan. Both guys Stetson and JT have been really good in terms of being locked-in and really focused on what we need to focus on.”

On the festivities of the Orange Bowl…

“I think the fun is in the preparation. The fun is in the atmosphere that you get to play in. I think when you get to talk about CFP it is a tremendous opportunity. No matter where you play, no matter where you are in the playoffs you have a grand opportunity. We have a very mature team, we have great leaders, I have full faith and confidence that our guys will handle it the right way. They are also going to be down there for almost a week, so it is not to think that if we were having a game here and it was a big game in Athens for a week our guys all prepare different ways. They spend their time in different locations. I have a lot of confidence that the seniors and the older players will have a good time, a good experience, and when it is time to be focused, be focused. You can’t focus 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and be at your best. We are trying to build to a moment of truth and built that kind of energy and focus where we need it to be at game time.”

On an update on injuries…

“Both Chris (Smith) and Jamaree (Sawler) have been practicing. Chris has been a little more limited in terms of volume but he has practiced each and every day. He is still overcoming his knee but he has been doing a great job. Jamaree has been out there every practice doing a good job. He has actually gotten a lot more work, he didn’t actually get a lot of work before the SEC Championship Game, so he has been able to practice. We have actually had an opportunity to get a lot of young guys to work in the time building up to our game prep. Proud of all the work that all the guys have done. There are no injuries that I can think of right now, significant. Ladd (McConkey) has been a little bit banged up and he has missed some time. But we expect him back and that is really it.”

On how the team’s reaction from the SEC Championship after their performance…

“The biggest thing is we are always technical with our players and we are always really truthful and honest. If you sat in our meetings and know that in a lot of the games that people might say that we dominated or held guys to lower points, we didn’t play really well. So, we don’t do it any differently based on the outcome, we do it based on how we execute, how we perform, not just on statistics. We have talked to our defense about that, we are very technical and honest, ‘what can we do better? How can we improve? How can we take away what the opponent does?’ Michigan does a tremendous job, they are very multiple, they have a lot of personnel groupings. They are extremely physical and they are committed to being physical. They can play in space, they have really good athletes. We know that they have a tremendous team. Their offensive coordinator was at Alabama and has done a great job. The challenge is there and we have really worked hard on ourselves, fundamentally and to self-scout, ‘ what are we giving up? What are people seeing on us? What changes can we make that would be beneficial for us?” That has all been our focus, is how do we get better fundamentally not about the last game.”

On the confidence in JT Daniels after injuries…

“JT has done a tremendous job in all of our practices and all of our work. Being able to be effective and understanding what we have to do offensively and making decisions. We get to see him go sometimes against the two defense, sometimes he gets to go against the one defense, just depending on what we are working on. He has done a good job of doing that.”

On Michigan’s defense…

“They are explosive, they have explosive playmakers on the perimeter. They do a really good job of mixing run-play action. I mean some of their run-play action it would remind you of our run-play action. They hit really big explosives off of their runs. The complementary ga,e of ‘ok, we have this run and you play this run too aggressive and then we are going to have an answer off of it.’ Eye violations, eye control of second-level players is critical. They have really good skilled tight-ends, they have really good backs, the quarterback is extremely experienced and understands what you are doing before you are doing it. They can make you pay that is where those explosive plays come from, breakdowns mostly. They either break tackles or bust. They can confuse you by what they do. They do a great job of game-planning each week.

On George Pickens…

“I think the opportunity to throw in the two games you are mentioning people try to take the run away and when you do that you sometimes leave yourself one-on-one and we have had an opportunity for him to make some plays…going back I guess you are referencing Baylor and Cincinnati. He had opportunities to make those plays because he was one-on-one in a lot of those situations. He is still not 100 percent. George is working really hard but we see him every day. Getting to see him every day, he is working back to get that way but he is not there. But nobody is! There is no person on Earth that comes back from an ACL and is back out there and running the same speed, confidence and breaks that you would usually have. He continues to get better, the biggest part is understanding all the intricacies of the offense. Making sure he understands splits, shifts, motions, IDs and when you don’t do that for that long I think everybody just assumes it comes back naturally. But that is not something you just wake up and do, it takes reps to do. He has only been starting to get these reps within the last two to three weeks. But he is getting better and he is working hard as his craft and he has gotten a lot of reps in the last four to five practices.”

On the message to the team heading into the bowl game…

“Really, the messaging doesn’t start right away. You guys probably want messaging and want to build it up, but we’re trying to make sure that we are focusing on us, and fundamentals. Why are we here and what is our why? What’s important to us, and build to that point, where we get too. Now, we’ve done a lot of work in terms of conditioning, lifting, and trying to improve the depth of our roster. There are a lot of things going on, but we are really at the second-third practice of Michigan in terms of detail and making sure they understand the intensity in which they are going to have to play with. The strain in which they are going to have to play with. The physicality that they (Michigan) play with will have to be matched. They do a tremendous job of that.”

On the signees who have joined the team…

“Those guys have been great. They work really hard. They are really positive. They jumped right in. Our players have embraced them. We appreciate them doing that because we don’t really do it for their development, as much as it is their exposure, but they are able to provide depth at some positions that we were down on in terms of injuries. They give the scout team a much better picture. Somebody commented on how good of kids they were in terms of doing their check-in, doing all the process, they have physicals and all the things they have to go through to do it. All of the kids just don’t want to do it because it is kind of a pain in the butt to go through all of that in such a short amount of time, really just to get two or three practices in. It’s important for them to do it, and they’ve done a great job.”

On the best defensive game plan facing an offense like Alabama…

“You have to be in good shape. You have to be able to play more players. There were a lot of times they didn’t get rid of it quickly, he (Bryce Young) held it. There were a lot of times that he was able to scramble and make plays. A really good athlete. How do you stop it? You cover them (the receivers). You have to be able to cover people. You have to be able to play people man-to-man, whether it’s man-match or man-to-man. There are all kinds of different man’s, but you have to be able to do it to cover people. That’s the premium in all of football. You look across the NFL, you have to be able to cover people. At the end of the day we have to be able to do that, and you have to affect the quarterback. Whether it's batted balls, sacks, scrambles, disguise. You have to be good at all of those things. That’s not going to change, regardless of who you play.”

On what’s different in Athens with students off-campus for winter break…

“There is just more time. I mean, I thoroughly enjoy it because finals are over. The stress of academics that some of our players go through. Several players have referenced to me ‘I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m able to work out and eat right. I don’t have the stress of going in and out of classrooms, tests and finals.’ We get more time with them (the players). We get more walks (walk-throughs). We are able to lift more. We are able to condition more. Recover. Recovery, in terms of our treatment. The facilities. All of that is great. Now, when they are away from here and they are (down/in town), there is not a lot going on. That can be a good thing if they handle it the right way. The maturity of your teams kind of exposes itself during this time because they are going to a basketball game at Stegeman (Coliseum) or they are going to their apartment to play video games. There is not a lot going on outside of that. I think most of our kids handle that in a mature way.”

On Jim Harbaugh…

“As far as I remember, I don’t think I’ve ever gone against Jim. In terms of crossing paths, he was in the NFL for a while and at Stanford. I don’t think that we crossed paths in terms of the game, but I have a lot of respect for the way that his teams play. They are physical. They like to bludgeon. You can tell they have some form of contact every day in terms of we’re going to run the ball. We are going to run it right here and we don’t care if you know. We are going to move you. I have an appreciation for that physicality. When you play a game when it comes down to that last possession, there are times where you have to be able to run the ball to end the game. They’ve been able to do that really successfully this year. They also are explosive, can throw. They have two quarterbacks that are very effective. They do a great job defensively. They are unbelievable at what they do. He’s put together a really, really talented, good roster. Their special teams… these guys are far and away from the best team we’ve played this year in special teams. They have starters all over it. They are very aggressive. I have a ton of respect for the way they play and the way they coach. I think that answers your question in terms of Jim.”

On Aidan Hutchinson…

“I don’t think we’ve faced anybody like him. He’s different. His length. His desire and want to is freaky. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s powerful. He’s long, but he plays so hard. You don’t measure a man just by his measurement, his forty time and his testing, which he has really good. You measure him by how he strikes and the physicality, toughness and want to he has. That’s obvious. We’ve talked repeatedly to our players about strain. Nothing casual. There’s not going to be anything casual about this game. It’s going to be about strain and physicality, which he prides himself on and does a tremendous job. It’s an incredible opportunity for our offense to go against the likes of their defense, but it’s also going to take a lot of hard work and toughness to persevere through the game, and match that entire intensity through the game.”

On the breakdown of film study in a bowl game…

“I think everybody has their own way and I don’t think anybody really wants to share that, to be honest with you. If you know what games they break down, you know what games they don’t. We look at all of them, I mean no one doesn’t look at all of them in this time. You might not have at all of them in a cycle in cutups because you can have too much information that you can’t make good decisions. But you try to find things that are similar to what you will do and how they will attack it. Same way with our offense and our defense and our special teams. We have a big enough staff that we are able to look at everything. But looking at everything is not always a good thing, you can see too much or see nothing or see a little and see a lot. We have our way of diving into it and we use that and I am sure that they have theirs.

#86 | John Fitzpatrick | Sr. | TE

On if the team has a “chip on their shoulder” heading into Orange Bowl…

“I would definitely say we have a chip on our shoulder—a bad taste after that last game. We don’t want to make the moment bigger than it is, and we realize that the next game is the most important game. But we’re hungry and we’re excited come the 31st.”

On lessons from playing last season’s Peach Bowl…

“That was definitely a big stage, and a lot of players came out and performed well. During that game, we handled adversity well and that’s going to be a big key to this game. Each team is going to make plays, and it’s how you respond to that.”

On James Cook developing in the offense…

“I think James has done a tremendous job. On swing passes, in between the tackles, you name it, he flexed out wide against Tennessee and made that play. So, whatever he’s asked to do, he goes and does it to the best of his ability. He does a great job and we’re really proud of him.”

On George Pickens playing well in bowl games…

“George is a baller—everyone knows that. He’s going to make plays whenever he’s on the field, and he’s continuing to get better each and every day in practice and we’re excited.”

#70 | Warren McClendon | R-Soph. | OL

On if the team has a “chip on their shoulder” heading into Orange Bowl…

“I would definitely say we have a chip on our shoulder. Losing the SEC Championship definitely left a bad taste in our mouth. It’s kind of refocused us and made us look ourselves in the mirror, get back to the grind, and get back to work.”

On the challenge of Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson…

“He’s a high-effort guy. He strains every play. He’s always going to give you his best effort, so just being able to match his effort is huge.”

On protecting Stetson Bennett in the Orange Bowl…

“First, we need to look at ourselves and figure out what we did wrong and how we can improve on that. Going into practice knowing that we have good guys that we’re about to go up against and taking pride in protecting our quarterback.”

On changes in Georgia’s defense in practice…

“No, I haven’t really seen too much of a difference. They still come in and they still work. Coach (Dan) Lanning, he still comes in and he still works. He gives us everything he’s got and he’s a good coach and he gets the best out of his players no matter where he’s at.”