2022 SEC Media Days takeaways: Georgia not concerned with complacency, Florida focused on culture change
The Bulldogs have some key pieces to replace, but Kirby Smart has the experience to keep his team focused
ATLANTA – Day 3 of SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame is in the books, and the stars of the show on Wednesday were the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs. Coach Kirby Smart and the rest of the Dawgs contingent spent the morning answering questions about repeating as champs, replacing stars on defense and the progression the offense is expected to take with quarterback Stetson Bennett IV at the helm.
The Florida Gators, led by first-year coach Billy Napier, made the rounds in the afternoon. Napier and crew were grilled with questions about the rebuilding project in Gainesville and the hype first-year starting quarterback Anthony Richardson is receiving.
Below are the key takeaways from Day 3 of SEC Media Days.
Florida's culture change
Napier took over after Dan Mullen essentially ran the Florida program into the ground. Recruiting classes weren't up to par with what is needed in the SEC East, player development was an issue and, at times, it looked like 85 players were going in 85 different directions. Enter Napier, who has worked on changing the culture within the program as his primary responsibility early on.
"We firmly believe that better people make better football players. We're committed to improving their character. We're going to prioritize their education. We're going to teach football at a high level. I think we inherited the situation that we have. We're excited about the administration, the resources that they provided. Ultimately, the game is about the players. Everything we do is to serve the players, position them for success within the game, but also when the game's over one day."
A lot of coaches drink out of a firehose upon taking over a program considering the Early Signing Period has evolved into the main signing period, a staff needs to be hired and the direction of the program needs to be established. Napier, though, is comfortable with where it stands right now.
"Reality is you have four opportunities to add players to your team: December, the winter portal period, February, then the spring portal period," Napier said. "I thought we made the most of our time. I think we were fortunate we were able to observe bowl practice and address maybe some of the issues that we observed. Did a great job in December. I think the momentum carried over to February. We added a few more players in the spring."
It's a slow process, especially with defending national champion Georgia in the same division. Napier has a track record of success both on the recruiting trail and at Louisiana, where he built a Sun Belt power during his short stint in Lafayette. He's laying the groundwork for another turnaround in Gainesville.
Complacency? Not at Georgia
Winning a championship is one thing. Sustaining success is completely different -- especially with 15 NFL Draft picks gone from last year's squad. That's the task for Smart after claiming the national title. However, the massive roster turnover might be a blessing in disguise thanks to Smart's experience at Alabama and a coaching staff that is ready and willing to take on that challenge.
"They know how to manage the situation," Smart said. "We got three or four coaches who have done this before in terms of having won a championship, understanding what it takes to do it again. It's really every situation is different because I've been on teams that had a lot of talent coming back, and I've had a lot of them that I had to replace talent. We're having to replace a lot of really good football players. Great news is we've recruited well. We've got good football players. We need experience. Complacency is not the concern. Experience is our concern. Our kids will buy into that, and we'll get them ready in fall camp."
Five of those NFL Draft picks were defensive first-rounders. However, star linebacker Nolan Smith has taken on a leadership role that starts with one overarching mindset.
"Humility. That is one of the big things that we took last year to move a step forward," Smith said. "Connect with your brother and be humble. Don't have an ego. That's another thing here, the past is your ego. We can't control last year. We can't do anything on last year. We can only look forward. Be where our feet are at, and that's now."
There's a lot of time between now and the time toe meets leather. Right now, however, the Bulldogs are approaching this like a team ready to create a dynasty.
KJ Jefferson … the next Cam Newton?
The veteran quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks has one player in mind when asked who he patterns his game after.
"Cam Newton," he told CBS Sports without flinching. "Definitely Cam Newton."
Lofty goals, no doubt. Newton won the 2010 Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to the 2010 national title. But from a skill set standpoint, they do many of the same things. Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 242-pounder, has the body size to pound the rock between the tackles (just as Newton did for Auburn), a critical part of the offense for the Hogs
"KJ Jefferson was our leading rusher, leading passer, MVP of the Outback Bowl," coach Sam Pittman said. "He's a returning captain from last season. He's our quarterback. He makes us go. He sets the tone for our football team."
Jefferson isn't resting on his laurels, though. He has worked tirelessly this offseason to complete his skill set to be as close to Newton as possible.
"I feel like I improved on decision making and being disciplined with the ball, just taking care of the ball and trying to put my teammates in the best position to win," he said. "Just leaning forward and moving forward to be more consistent and be even more vocal as a leader."
Arkansas is a chic pick to contend in the SEC West. Why? They have a quarterback who not only is difficult to plan for but difficult to stop, even if the schemes drawn up by opposing defensive coordinators are designed properly.
Kentucky's biggest question
Wildcats coach Mark Stoops has built a consistent winner in Lexington, but there's still work to be done in order to transform these Wildcats into a complete team. Stoops told CBS Sports that he is comfortable with where they are on both lines of scrimmage -- a hallmark of Kentucky football teams. Outside, however, they lack playmakers at wide receiver.
Their top three receivers from last year are gone, including Swiss Army Knife and 1,334-yard receiver Wan'dale Robinson. That leaves quarterback Will Levis, who is receiving first-round hype across the board, some work to do in order to live up to those expectations.
"We have to have some playmakers step up at the wide receiver position because we have a beast of a quarterback," Stoops said. "We have to get some playmakers to step up and compete. We're going to have to depend on a few younger guys there. The older guys need to continue to step up."
One of the expected contributors is a fresh face in the Bluegrass State. Dane Key, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound true freshman, got a jump start on his Kentucky career this spring.
"He's a special young man, definitely an impact player," Stoops said. "You could see right away he has the mindset that he could pick things up."
Stoops also expects big things from players out of the transfer portal, including an established threat who had 1,555 yards and nine touchdowns at Virginia Tech.
"Tayvion Robinson from Virginia Tech had a lot of experience," Stoops said. "We needed that as well. We feel like we have young guys, guys like Christian Lewis that were out there last year, DeMarcus Harris has been waiting for his role. We feel as a group we're probably as talented as we have been in a long time. There's definitely some youth there that we've got a lot of work to do."
Kentucky has the line of scrimmage covered and should be fine at running back once Chris Rodriguez Jr. gets up to speed. If the wide receiving corps comes together, the Wildcats could be the primary contender to Georgia's throne in the SEC East.
Changes in Gainesville
First-year Gator coach Billy Napier took over a broken program following the dismissal of Dan Mullen, and it's going to take some time to fix that. In some cases, coaches will put too much on the rebuilding effort too son. Not Napier. He knows where the program stands and what needs to be done moving forward.
"We want to create an organization that has life-changing impact on the players, right? We've put together a great infrastructure that's all about serving the players," he said. "We're trying to improve the player experience. We firmly believe that better people make better football players. We're committed to improving their character. We're going to prioritize their education. We're going to teach football at a high level. I think we inherited the situation that we have. We're excited about the administration, the resources that they provided."
Leaving a legacy
Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool is entering his super-senior campaign, and is undoubtedly one of the leaders of the defense led by coach Sam Pittman and coordinator Barry Odom. He has been through winless SEC seasons, two coaching staffs, massive roster turnover and a renaissance under Pittman. His work isn't done. Pool spoke about the personal goal that he has heading into the season -- leave Arkansas set up for continued success.
"It's very important," he said. "It's also a very big reason why I came back. There were a lot of older guys leaving, and I just felt that I wanted to come back to be able to set a standard of how you work. Because we had success last season, I didn't want it to be one of those things where it happens then it's just gone. I think that you need older guys breathing life into younger guys saying 'This is the way you do it. This is how you go about your business.' to be able to repeat that success."