Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Work now pays off during college football season

Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks with a player during a practice recently.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks with a player during a practice recently. UGA athletics

Looking back, Kirby Smart said he doesn’t remember what he expected last December when he took the Georgia job. He just knows what he expects now. Having won four national championships at Alabama, knows what he wants his teams to look like, and right now it’s not even close.

Bigger, stronger, faster and tougher.

“I didn’t have an idea of this is where we are. I was obviously coming from a machine over there where we had a lot of really good players,” Smart said. “That’s the hardest judgment I have. Where are we? I only have one thing to compare it to. I don’t know where they were here. I wasn’t part of it. I don’t know. I just know we have a long way to go.”

After only a slight pause, Smart continued.

“But we’ve got a good bit of time to get there. We’ve got to use this summer program to get bigger, faster, stronger. And we’ve got to bring in a group of players to make our team better.”

The practice fields are quiet. From the first day of winter workouts to the hype of recruiting to the anticipation of spring practice culminating in the excitement of spring games, college football has gone back into public hibernation. The season is still more than four months away. The lights may appear to be off. But this is a time where many teams are made.

“Oh, no doubt,” said Jeb Blazevich, the Bulldogs junior tight end. “It’s a lot of hard work that goes in. It’s not flashy. This is the stuff that no one will see, no one will hear about. But this is the stuff that if we put in the work and do what we need to during this offseason, that’s what they’ll read about.”

Every day matters, of course. But the challenge of this time is the amount of free time players have. Time to relax instead of push themselves. Time to give in to the many temptations that surround college students, especially athletes, and especially football players. For some, particularly those unhappy with their standing on the depth chart, it’s a time to question whether it’s all worth it or even transfer.

When Gus Malzahn took over at Auburn after the 2012 season, he told the players to start preparing to win immediately. Those players obviously bought in, as a year later the Tigers came within a play of winning the national championship.

“It’s hard to keep that mindset, working now for something later,” Blazevich said. “It takes a professional atmosphere. That’s the culture that we have here.”

Smart brought in several catch phrases since his arrival from Alabama. “Attack the day” and “so what, now what” are two of the most often repeated. They’re all intended to keep players focused on getting a little better each day.

“We’ve got to make the same gains we made from January to now all the way up to September going forward,” Smart said.

One reason coaches have stopped publicizing depth charts is they have seen starters becoming content and relaxing.

“A lot of guys with the first group, they get comfortable,” Smart said. “We’ve got a theme around here, there’ll be no comfortable. … We’ve got a lot of getting better to do.”

The upper classmen understand the importance of the summer.

“It’s definitely one of the biggest (times), now until August when we start our camp,” said senior tackle Greg Pyke. “You get to go home so we have a lot more free time. You got to stay out of trouble.”

“This is when you get better,” said outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter. “This is the time you get to focus on your grades, stay out of trouble. It’s time to put in work.”

The difference between Alabama and other schools is partly tangible. The Crimson Tide has more talent. Think about it. How many players for Georgia or Auburn last season would have started for Alabama? Five, maybe six for each team? That might be generous. The only two at Georgia for sure would have been linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. Nick Chubb would have rotated with Derrick Henry.

Some of that can be attributed to recruiting. Bama just gets better players every year. But some portion of it is the product of the hard work players put in when nobody sees them.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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