ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart is doing his best juggling act with players and coaches coming and going at the most fluid time of the football season.
Smart, in four seasons, has built a strong foundation in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall that figures to be tested each season the Bulldogs have success.
This year’s run has led to a return trip to the Sugar Bowl where UGA (11-2) will face Baylor (11-2) on Jan. 1 in New Orleans.
The price for this season’s Top 5 campaign was the loss of offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who built arguably the best offensive line in the nation at Georgia and now heads to Arkansas as a head coach.
Smart took his time to replace Mel Tucker when the former defensive coordinator left after the SEC Championship Game last year to become the head coach at Colorado.
He may not have that luxury with his next offensive hire.
Particularly if Smart has any visions of landing another high-profile offensive mind for his staff.
Here are three issues that arise out of Pittman leaving the Georgia staff:
1. Offensive crossroads
Smart oversees the defense and provides a steadying force, Dan Lanning a star understudy who himself will likely soon become a head coach.
But offense is different, and Smart is at a crossroads of sorts as he considers his next move.
Does Smart make a “big-name” hire that he could pair with James Coley, and turn the offensive meeting room over to a million dollar assistant?
Or does Smart look to maintain control of the framework, and find someone like-minded that will maintain the identity that put Georgia on the doorstep of the 2017 national championship and produced three straight SEC Championship Game appearances?
2. O-Line player attrition
We’re talking returning players, and we’re talking recruiting, because Pittman is a beloved figure who the Georgia offensive lineman rally around.
UGA has long known junior Andrew Thomas was leaving for the NFL. He’s a projected Top 10 pick.
But for other players who might be on the fence — despite appreciably lower draft stock — Pittman’s departure could play a role. Particularly when they are uncertain of who will be coaching them next season.
Juniors Solomon Kindley and Ben Cleveland, along with redshirt sophomore Isaiah Wilson, would all seem to be in position to benefit from another season at Georgia. But none have committed to returning, or leaving, at this point.
Georgia’s current crop of commits includes five offensive linemen — 33 percent of the class — including three who had planned to sign early.
Smart has had unquestionable buy-in from his players the past two seasons, but with each staff change the chemistry changes.
Smart’s presence and Lanning’s energy has maintained the buy-in on defense.
Coley’s promotion to replace Jim Chaney was plenty popular with the offensive players. But the disappointing results the second half of the season in conjunction with Pittman’s departure threatens the confidence on that side of the football.