FAYETTEVILLE — Kirby Smart expects his No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs to be tested by the No. 8 Razorbacks on Saturday in Athens.
Both teams enter the game 4-0 which is exactly where Georgia thought it would be at this point, but Arkansas is surprising to many around the country. But Smart expected Sam Pittman to build the Arkansas program the right way. Pittman was an assistant for Smart for four years prior to coming to Arkansas.
“We’re coming into a home game excited about Arkansas coming to play at our place,” Smart said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Sam and his staff. They’ve done a tremendous job creating a new culture and energy there at Arkansas. We wouldn’t expect anything less from him. Very thankful for what he did with our organization before he left and just an exciting atmosphere. I can’t wait to see the atmosphere with our fan base. The early kick should be very interesting. So I’m excited to see our guys get ready to play another big one.”
Smart was asked how Pittman could turn a program around that had won one SEC game in three years to No. 8 in the nation 14 games into his tenure?
“There’s no brief way to describe it,” Smart said. “I mean, it’s culture, it’s creating the right atmosphere, it’s getting key players at key positions. With the portal and the transfer situation and recruiting the way it is, you can turn over a little quicker than maybe having to build it from the ground up. Feleipe (Franks) helped last year. He had a quarterback that had SEC experience. Then he is able to play KJ (Jefferson) and got experience. A lot of our league is based on quarterback play and how you grow those guys and they’ve done a really good job of doing that. He’s also got two really good coordinators and that’s part of being a good head coach, is having two guys with good experience at what they do.”
Smart was a defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama before returning to his alma mater to be head coach. He expects Arkansas to test his team’s defense.
“Well, they’ve run the ball well,” Smart said. “So when you run the ball successfully you create one on one opportunities for shots. And they’ve done that well. I also think the quarterback does an unbelievable job of throwing the deep ball. That’s probably the best throw KJ makes is the timing of the deep ball. And they’ve got some very good big, wideouts that create matchup issues.”
Smart knows defending Kendal Briles offense is something that keeps a defensive coordinator working hard to plan for it. What makes Briles’ offense so tough to defend?
“Umm, everything,” Smart said. “You have to defend the entire field, right? He does a good job. He’s not limited to what he does. He does what the players do well. You’ve got a quarterback like KJ who creates issues and problems for defenses and then you’ve got good matchup guys, you’ve got speed at back. Got a really good team.”
Arkansas defensive end Tre Williams is someone who gave the Bulldogs fits while at Missouri. He’s now at Arkansas and was honored by the SEC on Monday for his play in a 20-10 win over No. 7 Texas A&M.
“He plays hard, tough,” Smart said. “He rushes so hard and has a tremendous motor for toughness. Plays the run and pass well and hard to block. I mean that’s the No. 1 quality of a good defensive player being hard to block. And it seems like they’ve got a lot of them.”
Smart watched as Pittman pulled in talented recruits at Georgia just like he had previously at Arkansas. Smart, who is a very good recruiter himself, talked about what makes Pittman such a great recruiter.
“He cares,” Smart said. “I mean, you know what genuine caring is and people know, people recognize when a person’s real in themselves and not a salesman. He’s genuine. He cares and it matters to him. He’s relational. He does a tremendous job of that.”
Arkansas and Georgia kickoff Saturday at 11 a.m. CT and televised on ESPN.