By The Associated Press
ATHENS, Ga. — Kirby Smart remembers a time he didn’t feel like he could call Georgia teammate Will Muschamp a good friend.
After all, Smart was just starting his playing career in 1994 and Muschamp was a senior and team captain.
“It was not like a close relationship when we were here because he was a fifth-year senior captain and I was a redshirt freshman,” Smart said, adding that separation in classes meant “we were really in two different places” even while playing on the same defense.
That changed when the two coached together on the defensive staffs at Valdosta State and Louisiana State. Smart remains grateful to Muschamp for hiring him at Valdosta State.
Now Smart is in his fourth season as Georgia’s coach and chasing his third straight trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game. Muschamp, in his fourth season at South Carolina, is looking for a signature win to prove his program can compete with the league’s top teams.
Smart will look to improve to 4-0 in the matchup of former teammates when No. 3 Georgia (5-0, 2-0) plays South Carolina (2-3, 1-2) on Saturday.
“He has been a good friend,” Smart said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Muschamp says his time at Georgia made him want to be a coach. “I still get texts from coach (Ray) Goff all the time,” he said with a smile.
Smart said he and Muschamp share information “when it’s not about scheme and it’s more about philosophy.” For this week, however, Smart is just trying to protect Georgia’s control of the SEC East against what he says is an improving Gamecocks program.
Georgia beat the Gamecocks 41-17 last season. The Bulldogs set a high mark for points scored in the series.
Smart needs no introduction to Gamecocks freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who is 2-2 as a starter.
“Hilinski is a very talented quarterback,” Smart said. “We recruited him hard here. He’s got extreme arm talent. He can make all the throws.”
Hilinski, from Orange, California, passed for 324 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-23 loss to No. 2 Alabama and was named SEC freshman of the week.
Despite Hilinski’s arm strength, both teams are expected to feature their running games. Georgia leads the SEC in rushing.
South Carolina is fifth in rushing after having two backs — Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster — run for more than 100 yards in a 24-7 win over Kentucky on Sept. 28. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in rushing defense and have not allowed a rushing touchdown.