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UGA determined to grab elusive national title in 2019: ‘We have to do more’

UGA offensive lineman Andrew Thomas talks about personal improvements at SEC Media Days

University of Georgia Bulldogs offensive lineman Andrew Thomas spoke his personal improvements in strength and speed at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
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University of Georgia Bulldogs offensive lineman Andrew Thomas spoke his personal improvements in strength and speed at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.

Amidst a dazzling Pasadena twilight, a play occurred that Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas will probably never forget. He’s able to recite nearly all of its intricacies despite playing many games following it.

Georgia called a pass play in the 2018 Rose Bowl’s crucial second half. Jake Fromm, a then-freshman quarterback, read the defense and audibled into a run play. It set up a 38-yard rushing touchdown by Sony Michel. A simple glance changed the Bulldogs’ play, and Thomas used that memory as a testament to Fromm’s knowledge that “separates” the offense above other teams.

But it can also be remembered as a play to allow the play to happen: Michel’s 27-yard touchdown run around left end that sent Georgia fans into euphoria unseen in nearly 40 years.

Nearly two seasons later, those unforgettable moments have yet to reach another peak. There’s potential for it, but a proverbial hump has bouldered among the soaring Bulldogs ever since.

“You just have to get over the hump. Bottom line, it’s real simple,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “You have to finish what you started. The game’s played for four quarters, and overtime sometimes. We have to do a better job as coaches making sure we have a better plan to finish the game in the second half.”

Georgia’s most-challenging test is Alabama. Smart knows they’ve been “kings of the SEC” and is “well aware” of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s undefeated mastery against former assistant coaches on his staff. But it must happen at some point, and the Bulldogs carry a determination to be that team.

They’ve gotten oh-so-close, and a reminder might ensue bitter feelings for fans who experienced such agony. But here it is anyway: two games on the biggest stage against mighty Alabama that Georgia dominated and allowed to slip through its grasp. A blown coverage in overtime in January 2018 and late-game offensive heroics in December served as the culprits.

Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses told reporters Wednesday that games against Georgia were his toughest. He cited the Bulldogs’ wear-you-down offensive style to the point Moses felt like he was “in a brawl.” His comments serve as evidence to Georgia and Alabama being on similar, if not exact, levels of pedigree — based on current state, not history. But surpassing that has been elusive for Smart after two tries.

“They’ve got a good team and I have a lot of respect for their program,” he said. “I’ve also got a lot of respect for ours and where we’ve come. We’ve got a really good football team. … I accept the burden. It’s not good enough to be 24-5 (over two years). We have to do more.”

J.R. Reed, a senior defensive back, found himself in the middle of each Crimson Tide-led breakdown. He made clear that he didn’t enter a “depressed” state, laughing at the fact that the term was used by a reporter. Reed even added the need for focus on the season opener at Vanderbilt, then whipped out the coachspeak term of game-by-game.

His points are valid, but deep down in each of the Bulldog representatives, there’s a hunger and a need. Something more than 11-win seasons. More than being lauded by a national audience. More than making it there. Eyes are set on winning, and maybe it’s the lone acceptable outcome.

“I’m OK with (those expectations),” Reed said Tuesday. “The game is based on championships. The Warriors set a record for wins one year and went like 73-9. But they didn’t win the championship. So who cares? You can have a great regular season, but if you don’t win the championship, it’s all a wash.”

University of Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed spoke with reporters at SEC Media Days about his decision to continue playing for the Bulldogs his senior year.

Smart makes his way to SEC Media Days each season with a new succinct catchphrase. He not only shouts it out to reporters and the fan base (which latches onto it in a matter of 3.2 seconds) — Smart envisions his team basing their season, successes and failures, off of it. His revamped 2019 version is “do more,” with a rather corny-yet-purposeful quote.

“Life doesn’t have a remote,” Smart said, not citing the influential message’s origin. He also took the attending media to economics class with a reference to marginal gains. “You have to get up and change it yourself.”

His new message is a slight pivot from a season ago: What’s Important Now. Instead, Smart is addressing the barricade that halts the Bulldogs from being the best, and that’s the fourth-year head coach’s latest desire.

Georgia players have already swung the “do more” pendulum into motion. As it whips rapidly from side-to-side, quarterback Jake Fromm plans to take better care of his body. Reed and Thomas take time on the practice field to implement “checks and balances” and evaluate areas for improvement. There’s a challenge passed down to the coaching staff, too.

Some of the assistants have been by Smart’s side for three seasons. Others have recently hopped on board to form a group with a new look. Entering year four of the Smart era, he strives to avoid complacency. Smart possesses more confidence, composure and lashes out his fair share of witty one-liners on the public stage. He’s not quite satisfied with the current level of success, however.

“I don’t think you ever arrive. I could sit here in year 10, and there still has to be growth,” Smart said. “If you don’t, then why are you in this profession? If you’re sitting around and doing the same thing you did last year, then we’re not going anywhere. Teams around us are developing, changing and getting better. If we aren’t (evolving), then we’re going to get passed by.”

Georgia football has rapidly progressed from what it was. But until a moment greater than the Rose Bowl replays in player’s minds, anything else is unacceptable.

A hump remains in the way of it happening. Georgia has determination to overcome it.

“We haven’t won the national championship,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of work we still need to do to be the best.”

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