ATHENS, GA. — Kirby Smart is inviting fans to a practice at Sanford Stadium in part because he wants to see how his players respond to the extra attention.
The new Georgia coach won’t be watching as closely to see how fans respond to the players, including those in the quarterback competition.
Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, launched his first preseason practice with Georgia on Monday. He is opening practice at Sanford Stadium to fans on Saturday, which also is the annual fan day with opportunities for photos and autographs.
Freshman Jacob Eason, the biggest name in Smart’s first recruiting class, may be the fan favorite to beat out returning starter Greyson Lambert and Brice Lambert at quarterback. Smart said he won’t be swayed by which quarterback draws the biggest cheers.
“Do the fans impact my decision?” Smart asked. “Absolutely not. They can go out there and cheer and scream for him, but I’ve got to make the best decision for this team. Ultimately, who the fan favorite is, that’s going to be the guy that wins the games, I promise you. If Eason loses a game, they won’t like him, either. They won’t like me, either.”
None of the candidates took control of the quarterback job during spring practice, which included a record turnout of 93,000 fans for the G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium. It was an impressive response — more than doubling the previous record of 46,000 — after Smart called for a packed house.
Smart is not making a similar request for Saturday’s practice. He said opening practice is a reward for fans and extra motivation for the players.
“I’ve always felt like that’s an opportunity to give back to your fan base,” Smart said. “Not only is it exciting for them, but it’s exciting for the players. I think that’s a good way to give back, to give them an opportunity to come out and watch a practice. I don’t think they know exactly what our players go through in practice.”
Smart said he expects fans and reporters to track the reps for the quarterbacks with the first- and second-team offenses.
“That’s fine, too,” he said. “That’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking to see how guys respond with people out there in the stands.”
Eason completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. He is the most celebrated quarterback to sign with Georgia since Matthew Stafford, now the starter for the Detroit Lions.
Tailback is another key position this spring. Junior Nick Chubb was on pace for a big season when he tore the posterior cruciate and other knee ligaments on the first play from scrimmage in Georgia’s loss to Tennessee on Oct. 10. Smart said Chubb will be closely monitored as he is cleared for “everything the team is doing.”
Sony Michel, who replaced Chubb as the starter, will be limited at the start of practice as he continues to recover from a broken left forearm he suffered in an offseason accident.
“We’re not really comfortable with him right now on if he’d have to fall and brace himself,” Smart said. “He won’t be as involved.”
Options at tailback include Tae Crowder, Brendan Douglas and freshmen Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien.
Senior center Brandon Kublanow said the uncertainty at tailback is not a concern.
“I’m not worried about it,” Kublanow said. “We have a lot of hard-working people on the team and we’ve had a great offseason. … We always have guys to fill in.”