Dawgs size up rivals for football title: ‘There’s no tricking them’

On field celebration from immediately after the game.
Published: Jan. 3, 2023 at 5:30 PM EST
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ATHENS, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Less than a week before the Georgia Bulldogs go up against Texas Christian for the national college football title, Georgia coach Kirby Smart spoke Tuesday along with defensive back Javon Bullard and quarterback Stetson Bennett.

Here’s a look at what they said in a news conference:

SMART: First of all, I’d like to thank the CFP for taking the time to put this together and having a great original semifinal game there at the Peach Bowl and now headed to the National Championship.

Our kids are really excited ready to head out to Cali we’ll be doing later this week. Looking forward to the opportunity. I’ve got a lot of respect for TCU and their program and Coach Dykes, what a tremendous job he’s done there.

Had the great fortune of seeing him and Max out at the Heisman Trophy ceremony and have so much respect for their program, them as people. And what a great opportunity it is to play in a large setting, in a great setting for a CFP National Championship.

Q. Kirby, you probably know there’s a record number of points scored in those semifinals. With the playoff bracket being expanded, do you see any evidence of guys even at this point just being tired? What’s your reaction to that?

SMART: I don’t know how to pinpoint it. I don’t know. Traditionally the teams that are in these games, they’re pretty good offensively. But you’d like to say they’re also pretty good defensively, but I think the studies and numbers indicate that as the season goes on and especially the semifinal and final games, scoring has to be going up. What that is, I can’t really pinpoint it. I don’t know that I would say it was just being tired because you could say that’s relative to offense as well that you can get tired on offense. You can get tired on defense.

But I certainly think it’s hard to play quality defense any more because I know we try really hard here and I know they do at TCU as well. Joe Gillespie does an unbelievable job, their defensive coordinator. And it seems that tackling becomes worse as the season goes on. And there’s more scoring. But I don’t know why that is.

I’ve been a part of some unique national championships with the LSU/Alabama ones and the rematch that was lower scoring but outside of that I’ve been part of a lot of shootouts.

Q. You’ve been through a 15-game season. In the back of your mind have you thought what it’s going to look like with 12 or they could play 16 or 17?

SMART: I haven’t really thought about it because I know that’s coming down the road. But at the end of the day, the gap, the space between the last game being the conference championships and the semifinals probably bothers me more than anything else because I think you lose rhythm there. So I don’t know that it’s the total number of games as much as it is the layoff in between. If it was continuous, I’m not saying you wouldn’t tend to see higher scoring, you probably would see higher scoring, but I don’t think it would be as bad of some of the performances.

Q. I know you’ve taken a look at TCU. Can you kind of give us a crib notes version of what makes TCU unique offensively and defensively? And I know it always comes back to players, but they do play a 3-3-5 we don’t always see. And obviously Coach Dykes is revered for some of his offensive strategies.

SMART: Yeah, tremendous team. Tremendous program. He’s won wherever he’s been. He’s done a great job. Their kids believe. They have, I feel like just reading and listening about them, a lot of similarities to our kids in terms of the culture created there, the way they play, the way they believe.

I think I saw a stat, they have the most comebacks in college football in the fourth quarter. And that shows what your mental makeup is. Their conference has been in a lot of tight ball games and they’ve won those tight ball games. And done an incredible job with what they do. And they create really tough situations defensively, do an incredible job on special teams. Have one of the best returners I’ve ever faced in the return game and score a lot of points on offense with the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback. So it’s a recipe to be playing for the national championship.

Q. One element of TCU’s offense is they throw a lot of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and use those to move the chains and also get some explosive -- what challenges does that present with your defense with that element of the offense?

SMART: I think all of college football is that way more of the game played on the perimeter not just unique to TCU they throw the ball vertical down the field. They have a lot of size outside so they can cover you up on the perimeter game and they can launch shots and they had a ton of good plays throughout the year.

Q. With Duggan, he completed a lot of passes when they’re behind schedule. He gets a lot of notoriety with his running ability. What have you seen from him that allows him to make those plays when the down and distance isn’t favorable?

SMART: He’s got great players to do it with. He understands defenses. I think he’s very smart. There’s no defense he’s going to see that he hasn’t seen before.

You’re not tricking an experienced quarterback, very similar with Stetson.

You’ve got to do it better than they do it. You’ve got to out-execute them. There’s no tricking them. And he does a tremendous job of that. They have a system to allow him to manage that and to get back to third downs where you’ve got a shot to convert them.

Q. I know you made a “Cool Hand Luke” reference to Stetson over the weekend. In the fourth quarter he’s been on point, a huge rating, no interceptions. What have you seen in his evolution that’s made him so good in crunch time in the fourth quarter?

SMART: I think it’s his mental disposition. I think he doesn’t think of the moment any different than the first quarter from the fourth quarter. He doesn’t feel that. He is a processor. He’s a deep thinker. He just goes through the process of what he’s going to do and doesn’t let it affect him.

He’s never real real high or real real low, which I think is a great trait for a quarterback. And I think that helps him in the fourth quarter to be able to go execute. He has a lot of confidence. I think his coaching staff does a great job preparing him to be in those moments.

Q. As you look at the rosters of the two teams, they’ve been built a lot differently. You’ve got blue chip after blue chip recruiting classes. TCU has some kids who maybe had very limited offers. I guess as you look at their talent and their roster, what stands out to you about that? And are there different ways, I guess, to build a better mousetrap in terms of recruiting?

SMART: I never look at it through the perspective of, a lot of people look at it as it’s all about what your kids were rated when they came in. Coach Dykes inherited a lot of those players and got some through the portal and things.

But you got what you got. And what you do with what you have is what makes you a coach. And he’s done a tremendous job with the players that he has and has inherited. I feel like we’ve done the same with the ones we’ve gone out and recruited.

So I never get too caught up in how it was built. It’s kind of like, okay, you gave me my mold and now I’ve got to go try to make something out of it. And you do the best job you can with what you’ve got. And that’s what you focus on.

At the end of the day, everybody gets into all those ratings and all those things. Over and over again it’s about the chemistry of a team and I would venture to say that these two teams probably have some of the best chemistry across the country.

Q. Educate me if you need to on this but Arian Smith, obviously he had a big game. I know he’s played in the slot a good bit. But it seemed like he was much more involved in all the motions and things that you guys run. Did you guys redevelop a role for him during the break? And specifically obviously Ladd’s still banged up, so I’ll also use this opportunity to ask you to update us on his status and those other guys that were banged up in the game?

SMART: Yeah, I don’t know if I know exactly what you’re asking. Arian has developed through not being injured. His role has increased probably with every week this season. It may not have always shown that way in the stat line or in the number of snaps played. I don’t think you guys can evaluate it that way because you don’t see what goes on in practice for five days.

So he has grown and developed and gotten better and better and better. And he really just got more opportunity to do what he’s been doing. I wouldn’t call it a redefined role. It would be an opportunity because of Ladd’s injury and we didn’t know how long or how hard Ladd would be able to go.

Ladd looked good, looked good in warmups, and was able to go and play. We’re hoping he’s even better this week. But we had to have somebody ready. And you can imagine over 28 days of preparation there’s a lot of days that Arian was repping and doing things because Ladd wasn’t able to. As we got closer and closer to the game, Ladd was doing more and more. It was a balance between the two.

And we’ve had a musical chairs, and most people do because people have injuries at wide receiver positions but between AD, Marcus, there’s been a lot there. And I think B-Mac and Coach Monken have done a tremendous job of slicing and dicing those roles.

Q. How about Darnell and Warren and Chaz, can you update us on their injury status?

SMART: Yeah, we’re hopeful to get all those guys back.

Q. The 3-3-5 of TCU, how instructive does that make the Mississippi State for you all?

SMART: Say again?

Q. TCU’s defense, the 3-3-5, how instructive is the Mississippi State game thus for you all?

SMART: Not really at all. I mean, they’re not, Mississippi State is very different. They’re not really 3-3-5 compared to these guys.

Q. In what sense?

SMART: Just not the same structure. It’s not the same looks that they provide. There’s different coverage structures. There’s different elements to it. There’s different personnel groupings, different techniques with inside, different styles of plays than those guys.

Q. Logistical question, just making sure that everyone you’re expecting to go in the 2-deep, that no one is going to miss the trip for injuries or other reasons?

SMART: We’ll be taking the whole team out there.

Q. With that last drive on defense, you guys had a lot of freshmen on the field, Marvin, Jalon Walker, Malaki, Mykel, just how big were those freshmen, those contributions especially toward the end of that game?

SMART: Well, they didn’t actually do what they were supposed to do every play. So the contribution can be either positive or negative. I wouldn’t say it was negative. But I wouldn’t say it was positive. I would say it was a lot more neutral.

So they’re out there because they give us the best chance to win but some of them are out there due to unforeseen circumstances and injuries, and we don’t make excuses around here and talk about injuries and these problems, but we’ve had our fair share. And nobody feels sorry for us and don’t want anybody to. But we have to get those guys ready to play at a higher level.

And you can make a case that’s a great thing, there’s four or five freshmen out there. You can make a case that’s not a good thing. It’s all about how they perform and how they execute.

Q. Stetson, what has been the overall message just among the players, among the coaches, with coming off how you guys performed on Saturday? Obviously feel like you and Coach both said that you felt like the team needs to play better. Just how do you guys feel how you performed and what has to happen on January 9th?

BENNETT: Yeah, I think there were, you know, stretches where we didn’t play well. But then there were also stretches where we played really, really well. And no matter -- that all happened within the game. And it’s not like we get less credit because it happened in a certain situation or what.

But we’ve just got to clean up those areas where we didn’t play as cleanly for a little bit. And not have to play basically perfect like we did in the fourth quarter.

Q. Do you feel like you guys can play a lot better than you did on Saturday?

BENNETT: I mean, I think it’s pretty apparent that we can. We opened up the second half with two three-and-outs. Now, part of that is Ohio State is an unbelievable team and they played really well. But, yeah, I definitely feel like we can clean things up and play better than we did.

Q. Stetson, one of the cool things, I think, about your story as you grew up as a Georgia fan, so you knew all that stuff before you got there. Your name now is starting to overtake some big names on records lists for career total offense, career this, career that. Are you updated on that kind of stuff? And do you have even a second to appreciate it?

BENNETT: I’d say I’m as updated as I want to be. And no, not yet. We still have a season. And we’ve still got one more game left. And all that stuff will still be there after that if I do want to look at it eventually. But now’s not the time.

Q. Stetson, you got a chance to spend some time with Max in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. I was just wondering, did you have much of a chance to interact and kind of compare notes as quarterbacks of playoff teams? And also do you see any similarities, I guess, between your two stories, as kind of underdog quarterbacks who made it this far?

BENNETT: Max is an awesome dude. We hung out a little bit in New York, like you said. It was kind of a weird situation because whenever -- now he didn’t go to the Manning Academy -- but whenever we were there, it was more like we were a bunch of dudes and we were all hanging out.

In New York, it was almost like there was still a sense of competition, even though we weren’t because I guess we were all trying to win, not that we could do anything up there.

But he’s an A-plus dude. He works hard. All those things. But I think he’s the heart and soul of that team. I hadn’t really watched him play, but I’ve watched his interviews, and I’ve watched just how he carried himself up in New York. And he’s a leader. And there’s something to be said for both his story and my story and the fact that we’re here in the end.

Q. Stetson, along those lines, you said you played about 30 minutes of bad football the other night. And Max’s numbers weren’t great during that game, but you guys made plays when you had to. What’s, I guess, the importance for a quarterback to be able to just keep playing even when you’re not playing necessarily well at the moment?

BENNETT: Yeah, I mean, it’s the same thing that keeps you playing when you’re playing unbelievable in the moment. You know it’s football and there’s always something that you don’t know that’s going to happen. And it’s cliché that it’s not over until that fat lady sings.

And you owe it to your teammates more. And if you give up it’s almost a selfish thing because people out there are relying on you. And you’re not just playing for yourself.

And so there really wasn’t an option but to keep going. And things worked out and we played really well at the end.

Q. Stetson, obviously we won’t know Darnell’s status until later in the week, but what kind of impact does his absence have on this offense and the way you guys might do things given how important and unique a player he is?

BENNETT: Darnell is getting treatment. He’s resting up. And hopefully he’ll be good to go. But he’s an unbelievable talent. And he’s amazing.

But if he can’t go, then we’ll just have other people step up. That’s the way it works here. And it’s about the team. We want to have him. We’d love to have him. He’s one of the game-changers we have. But if we don’t then we still have to go win a football game.

Q. This is going to be your final collegiate game. I’m sure you’re going to try to block it out and focus on going on out there and winning. But when you look back at all of it, what do you think about yourself that’s allowed you to get to this point in your career where you’ve got a chance to win a second straight national title for Georgia?

BENNETT: I don’t know. Maybe I just -- I don’t know. I try to see things for what they are, and I don’t let people tell me what they are. I try to figure that out on my own. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that.

Q. I know that you can tend to be pretty self-deprecating ... but what does it feel like when you have a coach doing ... on national TV after the game in the way that Coach Smart was at the end of the Peach Bowl?

BENNETT: We’ve all got our emotions and I felt that way. I didn’t play well. Kind of forced me to play as well as I did in the fourth. But if we don’t play in the second and third quarter, if we don’t have that little stretch, then maybe we don’t have to.

So I agree with him. Who knows what the reason was but it does have to be fixed. We’re trying to be perfect. And we’re trying to do everything that we can to make every play perfect. And when it’s not, then win or lose, we’re not happy with it.

That’s my coach, and he’s been my coach for several years now. And so I trust him. And it doesn’t really matter that other people here call me out because I know that it’s the truth. And so the truth and everybody can hear it and he’s right, I do need to play better.

Q. This is for both Stetson -- is Javon on as well?

BULLARD: Yes, sir.

Q. Stetson, you’ve been here about as long as Kirby has. He sort of has taken this program obviously everybody you followed your whole life that everybody thought was a sleeping giant, had not quite fulfilled his potential and certainly has these last few years. What in your mind has allowed him to take that next step with the program? What has he done, what have you seen from your long time there? And after you’re done, Javon, what has Coach brought to the defense that was obviously kind of his calling card when he arrived at Georgia? What do you see as the things that stand out about what he brings to the defense?

BENNETT: I’d say first he learned from probably the greatest of all time, Coach Smart. And he learned and he took notes. And he got to practice and he got everything down to a T and then he made it his.

And when he came here, there’s a little bit of if you’ve never been and you’re trying to build a program, and I think the thing that has most changed is -- not most changed but the thing that’s gotten us here is that he is a big believer in discipline and schedule and all that stuff. And that’s good and fine, but he’s also brilliant.

And he learns. And everything at the end of the day is about the University of Georgia winning. That goes from our facilities, goes to recruiting, raising money, practice, recovery, nutrition, mental health, everything.

And I think that’s been if not the biggest, one of the biggest reasons for success. And whenever you see the head guy do that, then everybody else in the building kind of feeds off that and knows what’s expected. And then here, a couple years down the road we believe in it. And it’s part of who we are.

BULLARD: As far as what he brought to the defense, Coach Smart always had that sort of swagger about him that just screamed out “defense.” Along with what Stetson said, he continues to learn his players. He wants to know what we’re thinking, what we see out there.

And just the energy that he brings throughout practice and the preparation through the week allows us to go out there and play free on Saturdays.

Q. Stetson, you played or you watched in ‘17 while Georgia played 15 games. You played 15 games last year. For both of you guys, what are your bodies like this time of year? Are you tired? And with an expanded playoff, can you imagine playing one or two more games in this system?

BENNETT: Well, I mean, I’ll be the first -- I’ll sure Bull agrees with me, it doesn’t really matter now. We’ve got, what’s today, the 3rd? However you do your math, five or so days, six or so days for it all.

So if you can, this is the ultimate, are you injured or are you hurt? And if you’re not injured, then you still get up and you play because what are you saving yourself for now? This is it. This is the big game. And this is what we do it for.

BULLARD: Just follow them up, just me agreeing with Stet; now is not the time to complain about your body hurting our your body being taxed. I know it’s been a long season but we’re the last two teams in college football. So I’m pretty sure everybody’s hurting.

So right now is not the time for us to be not necessarily complaining, but just nagging about our bodies being hurt. It’s football. Your body’s going to ache. You’re going to have aches and pains. But it’s all about winning every day and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Q. Can I ask real quick how Hamlin’s injury last night impacted you guys as players?

BULLARD: As far as me just watching it, you always think just like -- as far as sports, I’ve never seen nothing like that, as far as like a dude’s heart stopping. I didn’t even know that was possible in football, to be honest with you. But my prayers go out to him and his family and the Bills organization.

Q. You’re going up against good receiving cores the last couple of games. What stands out about TCU’s group when you study film?

BULLARD: We’re just starting to get into them today but their size on the outside stands out a lot. We know they’ve got some very large receivers, big catch radiuses and they can run. Anytime you have that size on the perimeter, whether it’s quick game or deep balls, it’s always a great matchup.

Q. Obviously Darnell went down. Oscar Delp got more snaps. You’ve seen Oscar in practice. How do you think he held up? I know you didn’t study film of him, but what do you think he brings to table?

BULLARD: I felt like played great. Oscar comes to practice and works day in and day out. That’s how this team works. One man goes down, another one has to step up.

Like I said, we don’t hold our heads out in pity. Darnell is a

great player, and Oscar came in and, I wouldn’t say filled those shoes, but he definitely did what he needed to do in order to get the win.

Q. Stetson says it’s pretty apparent he thought you guys could play better than you did. And he said he felt like you guys could clean some things up. And I was wondering, from your perspective, A, if you agreed; and B, as you watched film, what are the specific things that you guys would like to do better?

BULLARD: I definitely agree. I think the whole team can attest that we didn’t play our best game. But at the end of the day, it’s only one result that matters the most and that’s the W.

Like I said, we didn’t play our best game. But there’s a whole lot we can fix as far as I can speak on the defensive side of the ball, communication and things like that, just the basic things like that, knowing your leverage, talking. I know we’ve got to talk better throughout the secondary and things like that.

Like I said, throughout this week we’re just going to work on some other things and try to detail our work to the best of our ability.

Q. Who handles the tickets, how many you get, and is all of Milledgeville reaching out to go to this game?

BULLARD: I’m not really sure who has a ticket, things like that. But I’m pretty sure my mom and my pops are going to be there, and my brother. So that’s all that really matters to me.

Q. For those who don’t get to see AD Mitchell and what he’s been through this year to try to come back, can you explain what it was like watching him be able to get back for these last two games?

BULLARD: AD deserves everything that he’s come to get. AD is an extremely hard worker. And I came in with AD. So our friendship goes beyond the football field. And I just love watching him play. He’s an emotional player, cares about this game, and he cares about his team and he cares about winning. Like I say, AD deserves everything he’s going to get, not only coming up, but in life in general.

Q. What do you remember about when you came in with him at the same time when you guys were recruits?

BULLARD: Just keeping our head down and work. There were days in I saw AD catching Juggs when nobody was in there, things like that. The plays that he makes don’t happen overnight; it’s through the preparation and the work he’s put in behind closed doors that makes him the player that he is.