ATHENS, GA (GeorgiaDogs.com) -- New Georgia football coach Kirby Smart has been wearing a whistle for a long time, so on one hand the start of practice for another season is nothing new. But one the other, this isn’t just any season.
Smart, the former Bulldog defensive back, began preseason practice Monday for his first season as a head coach.
“I am fired up to finally get to go on the grass and have a ball out there on the grass, and throw it around and practice a little ball,” Smart said during a pre-practice news conference in the team meeting room at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. “We’re excited as a staff, energetic, and kind of rejuvenated, that’s probably the right word, after a little summer break.”
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who began his 25-year run leading the Bulldogs in 1964, said anxiousness and nervousness don’t really come into play before that first practice — even when it’s your first as the man in charge.
“I think you’re so busy that you don’t even think about that,” Dooley said Monday. “You’re preparing right on up to it; from the time you arrive, every hour is mapped out and there’s always something to do.”
One memory that stands out from Dooley’s first preseason practice, now 52 years ago, involved Georgia’s President, Dr. O.C. Aderhold.
“We had kind of tight security. I remember that we were going to restrict people coming in to practice and the manager that was at the gate took those orders to the max,” he said, laughing. “Dr. Aderhold was being turned away and I had to go get him and bring him back.”
Like Smart, Dooley was a first-time head coach. Dooley played at Auburn and was an assistant coach there for many years before coming to Georgia. The Bulldog faithful know Smart well from his playing days at Georgia and as a high-profile defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama. Georgia fans hardly knew of Dooley at all, he said.
“I could go on and on about that first year, but suffice it to say that Kirby Smart has been much more accepted than I was when I came 52 years ago,” he said. “I was a total unknown from another school, across the Chattahoochee.”
That first practice might have had a hiccup, but it was followed by 201 career wins over 25 seasons, six SEC titles, the 1980 national championship and a long and distinguished run as Georgia’s Director of Athletics.
You don’t win like Dooley did without great players and great leaders. Smart said one of the big things he’s looking for in the next few weeks of fall camp is leaders, and which players will follow those leaders.
“Every team is defined by the leadership they have, and I don't know exactly who those leaders are going to be,” Smart said. “I’ve had 15 practices of spring ball, had some really good summer workouts. These next 28, 29 practices are what's going to determine who our best leaders are.
“When we talk about leadership, we're talking about being receptive of leadership, as well. We've got some guys who can be leaders, but how are other guys on the team going to handle that leadership when it comes and confronts them? That's a big part of what we do.”
Georgia’s defense lost one of its biggest leaders, and biggest characters, from last season in linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who was drafted in the third round by the New York Jets. Jenkins was a productive player and vocal leader, two things that will have to be replaced.
Safety Dominick Sanders admits that he’s not the most vocal guy, though he was one of three Bulldogs that attended SEC Media Days last month. Sanders has started 25 of 26 games in his career, was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press after last season and now heads into his junior year with nine career interceptions. He knows that it’s time for him to be a veteran leader.
“I’m not a very vocal guy but that’s something I’m working on,” he said. “I lead by example, but the main things is, to have a good team you’ve got to step up up and say something to your brother, and that’s something I’m working on.”
Being a leader also means helping the new guys. Junior left tackle Isaiah Wynn remembers what it was like to go through his first preseason at Georgia — the stress, the confusion, the fatigue — and he remembers how the older guys helped him along. Now it’s his turn.
“I was nervous and had butterflies, but the offensive line that was here did a good job of welcoming me,” he said, adding, “I think we’re all doing a good job of taking in the new freshmen and just making sure they feel welcomed into this brotherhood.”
The physical side is demanding, Wynn said, but the “mental part is the big step coming from high school to college.”
The whole team will be tested mentally during camp. Smart said he and his staff want to put the players through as many challenging, game-like situations as possible.
“For me as a coach, how kids handle adversity in camp tells me a lot about them. We're going to try and simulate the ups and downs of a season in camp. There's going to be good days for the defense, there's going to be bad days for the defense. Same for the offense,” Smart said. “How you respond to that (is what's important). There's going to be players demoted. There's going to be players promoted in jobs, on the depth chart. There's going to be movement. How they respond to that adversity will tell me a lot about them.”
Georgia fans will get a good look at what the Bulldogs go through in practice on Saturday at Sanford Stadium. The practice from 2:30-4:30 p.m. is open to the public and Smart wants fans to see what a real practice is like.
“I don't think they know exactly what our players go through in practice," Smart said. "They come to the spring game, they come to G-Day — that's not a practice. ... I want the fans to see those guys work, see them sweat, see what they do.”