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Kirby Smart more comfortable in Year 2 with Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- Kirby Smart just looks more rested, more comfortable.

He isn't quite gliding across his office's threshold, but he has a little more bounce in his steps as spring practice nears the finish line following his debut 8-5 season as Georgia's head coach.

After an up-and-down start, Smart is learning a lot more about his team and himself and is liking what he's seeing. Georgia, which will most likely be the media favorite in the SEC East this season, is far from a finished product, but Smart and his players are way ahead of where they were at this point last year.

When you have 10 starting defenders returning, possibly two phenom quarterbacks taking snaps alongside two 1,000-yard backs, and a much-improved offensive line, things slow down more for a head coach. And when some of the "bad apples" who didn't think they played enough have moved on, you tend to get more done.

"This team, this group is sold on what our staff and what myself believe in," Smart told ESPN last week. "We're in a better place.

"I like this team a lot better, too."

And the hope is that Georgia fans will, too.

Year 2 has seen some banner years for SEC coaches. Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik won national championships in their second seasons at Florida and Auburn, respectively. Nick Saban won 10 games and the SEC in his second year at LSU then later led an undefeated Alabama team to the SEC championship game in year two in 2008.

Les Miles won 11 games in his second season at LSU (2006), as did Will Muschamp at Florida (2012). And Georgia fans won't forget Mark Richt winning the SEC in his second season (2002).

With the SEC East still unstable, Smart could be staring Atlanta in the face, but he's also building the right way. He just signed the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, which featured 18 ESPN 300 members and four five-star prospects. He loaded up with six massive, SEC-sized offensive linemen, and six of his seven defensive back signees are at least 6 feet tall.

Not all of those signees will play this season, but a good number of them are expected to make major contributions, starting with early enrollee, five-star defensive backs DeAngelo Gibbs and Richard LeCounte III.

Smart has the talent to work with in Athens but knows he'll have to develop it in order for this class to even matter.

"Three years down the road, we'll look back on this class and say it was either really good or it was really overrated," Smart said.

So how do you get all that talent to grow emotionally and in unison? You throw extensive team-building exercises at them, thanks to leadership council meetings once a month.

There was a Habitat for Humanity function and a winter cookout for players, coaches and family inside the new indoor facility. There was also a surprise bowling trip with the Boys & Girls Club, where Smart promises he nailed a strike on his lone roll.

For a deeper internal connection, Smart had all of his players sit down and write down on a piece of paper what they thought their role on the team was. They then passed that paper to the right so each teammate could then write what he thought his teammate's role was. This continued until every player was evaluated.

Nick Chubb wanted any sort of feedback. Jacob Eason and Roquan Smith found out they needed to be better, more vocal leaders. There were gut punches and pleasant surprises, but in the end, Smart said the exercise was extremely helpful for his players.

"Now you gotta take that sheet of paper and live up to it," Smart said.

Smart and his Dawgs have a lot to live up to, as well. Neither has to be as perfect as Smart's bowling game, but Year 2 of this marriage needs to show that Smart, who arrived after spending eight seasons as Alabama's defensive coordinator, has the coaching chops to guide a top SEC school like Georgia.

Besides that recruiting class, Smart has a new-look offensive line that's been surprisingly solid this spring, putting the offense ahead of the defense. He's getting more elements out of a running game that Smart hopes will spread defenses out more this fall. Eason is starting to take hold of the leadership side of the quarterback position, and the special skills that made him the nation's top high school QB prospect in 2015 are starting to show more, even if he's getting pushed by bright-eyed freshman Jake Fromm.

All of this isn't without some hiccups, like the defense falling behind with 10 starters back, the real unknowns when it comes to a go-to receiver, or if this offensive line will continue to hold up during the fall, but so far, Smart is enjoying his second spring back in Athens.

He's more comfortable being around his guys and running an entire program, not just one unit. As he puts it, he isn't isn't getting lost in his own shuffle of managing a team or his time. He's seeing the trees in the forest, and his guys are following suit.

"I think I'm starting to see some fruits of our labors this spring," Smart said.