Editor’s Note: From time to time, the staff at DawgNation will answer direct questions from readers about subjects pertinent to UGA football. This installment reflects a study that DawgNation took on after our interest was piqued from the DawgNation message board forum.
Readers, like fans, can be hard to please. Even by a top 10 team that just won in Jacksonville. We also try to keep chopping anyway.
Credit the DawgNation forum for this post. That genesis of this topic was something somewhat benign in a thread which summarized how well the highly-rated classes during the Kirby Smart era at UGA have panned out so far.
That conversation evolved into a few posters who wondered just how much of an on-field impact those recruits that signed after Smart became the coach have been so far in Athens.
Those seeds would inspire variants of this topic: How well has Georgia developed players in Smart’s three years leading the program?
Kicking the tires on that one led to an interesting conclusion.
Smart and the Georgia staff is typically labeled by many with the rep that his first three classes have upgraded the talent base.
Georgia won the SEC title in 2017 thanks in large part to names like Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Roquan Smith. They came to Georgia during the Mark Richt era.
Those guys are all in the NFL. The Bulldogs now maintain their status as a top 10 program this year thanks to the restocking done by Smart and his elite staff of recruiters.
The Bulldogs now have an upgraded talent base. The program should be more like Alabama given the “Jimmies and Joes” it has signed up lately.
And that would be wrong.
What UGA needs beyond its elite recruiting under Smart
That perception doesn’t match up with reality. At least not right now.
Get the best players. Then develop the stew out of them. Coach them up hard. Physical practices lead to better game day performances.
That’s the basic blueprint for UGA under Smart. Spirited practices and heated competition among elite players will make everyone better. The on-field results will be pretty good if all those boxes are checked.
The reality here is that Smart’s first three classes have really yet to make a significant impact on the 2018 team. Or even the 2017 team for that matter.
That’s a big-boy statement, but I’ll start this discussion with the number 10.
That is how many of Smart’s recruits that have started at least 10 games during the 2016, 2017 or 2018 seasons.
It breaks down to 10 players out of the 70 who have enrolled at UGA since he became the head coach.
Why 10 starts? That’s the control measure to identify the players have risen to the top of the depth chart. That’s a baseline for this research to gauge whether or not those signees have become a front-line starter and a major contributor at UGA.
Those 10 Bulldogs will be presented a few lines below. When the reader scans it, the first thing that should pop out is that two of those guys are not even with the team anymore. Jacob Eason (13 starts) transferred out and Javon Wims (17 starts) is now in the NFL.
We also lump J.R. Reed into that group. He is not a classic signee as he came over as a 3-star transfer in the summer of 2016. But he was a player addition under Smart in the same vein that Maurice Smith (2016 transfer from Alabama) also bolstered the starting lineup.
If we were looking for radical stats, we could’ve left Reed off. But the purpose here is to identify the talent that has enrolled since Smart became the coach and to see how many are already major contributors.
The Bulldogs under Smart who have started 10 games
(Among players to enroll during Kirby Smart’s time as coach)
- 23 starts: Safety J.R. Reed (3-star transfer in the summer of 2016)
- 22: QB Jake Fromm (4-star from the 2017 class)
- 22: OT Andrew Thomas (4-star from the 2017 class)
- 21: TE Isaac Nauta (5-star from the 2016 class)
- 19: DT Tyler Clark (4-star from the 2016 class)
- 17: WR Javon Wims (4-star from the 2016 class)
- 15: WR Riley Ridley (4-star from the 2016 class)
- 15: OG Solomon Kindley (3-star from the 2016 class)
- 13: QB Jacob Eason (5-star from the 2016 class)
- 13: DT Julian Rochester (4-star from the 2016 class)
What is the big worry for UGA heading into the big tilt with Kentucky? Smart said it was the run defense after the Florida win. He stated that very clearly.
Those that hunger for consistency among that front seven will see there is not a single LB signee from Smart’s elite classes in there. Nobody has been able to start 10 games for the Bulldogs. Not yet.
These Georgia classes have clearly made an imprint as reserves and on special teams. The Bulldogs are night and day under Smart with the type of athletes that now flash during that phase.
Several of those signees do not start on Saturdays but they do get good minutes.
There are also seven UGA signees from the pre-Smart classes (2014 and 2015) that help the bottom line for this year’s team. That number plus preferred walk-ons Rodrigo Blankenship and Nick Moore now total up to nine front-line starters. There are also three other pre-Smart contributors to the 2018 roster.
It appears that not enough attention has been placed on the job this staff has done developing those Bulldogs. Those guys often get lost amid the hype of Georgia’s back-to-back top 3 recruiting classes.
A few things about this UGA football discussion topic
Did everyone pay attention to what Jeremiah Holloman did against Florida?
That’s because elevated play from a game-changing talent like Holloman is vital for the program to seriously pose a threat to Alabama.
He’s a gifted player, but he is part of a 2017 class that has yet to make its mark at UGA. That impact is not overdue at this point yet, but now is the time to look for more contributions in the box score from that group.
Holloman (two touchdowns) delivered in his first career UGA start.
Let’s examine the impact made by each of Smart’s first two classes up to this point.
2016 signing class
(Rated No. 6 nationally on the 247Sports Composite)
- We chart 8.4 average career starts for each of the 21 signees plus transfer J.R. Reed
- There are six members of the 2018 team from this class that have started at least 13 games for UGA (Clark, Kindley, Nauta, Reed, Ridley and Rochester) in their careers
- 6 of the 21 signees from this class are no longer with the team.
- Solid contributions have been made by seven of the top 10 highest-rated signees in the class
2017 signing class
(Rated No. 3 nationally on the 247Sports Composite)
- We chart 3.2 average career starts for each of the 25 signees
- If Fromm and Thomas are not considered, the 23 other members of this class have an average of 1.4 starts per signee so far at UGA
- There are only six Bulldogs in this class who have started at least five games for UGA
- There are 13 members of this class who have yet to start a single game
- Solid contributions have been made by six of the top 10 highest-rated signees in this class
The number for the 2016 class drops even further to 7.0 per signee across 36 potential starts if Eason and Wims are taken away. If we wanted to really juice numbers, then they could be stripped away given the fact they no longer contribute to the 2018 team.
That number is even beefed up by Marshall Long (nine starts in 2016) at punter. He has yet to play this season. That said, it still seemed fair to include the overall contributions by that class to the program.
There is a logical counterpoint to this topic. It is that a player doesn’t have to be a starter to be a major contributor. D’Andre Swift (five starts) and Mecole Hardman Jr. (six starts) clearly prove that notion.
But we’re simply looking at the signees who have established a starting history at Georgia. We’re not seeking ALL-SEC status even though Hardman made one of those teams last year. Starts lead to a lion’s share of reps. Those quality in-game reps lead to the experience that comes with being a veteran in the locker room.
Ben Cleveland is another name to bring up. He’s made just nine starts for the Bulldogs and he surely would’ve cracked this list if not for his injury earlier this season against Missouri.
Yet the additions made to the 2016 class impact (Eason, Long and Wims) do balance out that tough break. Injuries are a part of football. Every program deals with them.
Where do the Smart signees pop up for this year’s team?
It is important to include the number of players from those Smart classes that have developed into a weekly starter in 2018. There have been only eight games so far so an established starter in 2018 won’t make those calculations.
But that number only expands to 18 players out of those 70 enrollees.
- 2016: 9 of 22 (Clark, Cleveland, Hardman, Elijah Holyfield (5 career starts); Kindley, Nauta, Reed, Rochester and Ridley)
- 2017: 6 of 25 (Fromm, Richard LeCounte III, Walter Grant, Swift, Thomas and Isaiah Wilson)
- 2018: 3 of 24 (Jake Camarda, Tyson Campbell and Cade Mays)
The major point here is most would have guessed that the 2016 and 2017 classes would have had a greater on-field impact by now.
It was noted earlier, but UGA has relied on several starters from the 2014 and 2015 class this season (nine) among a core of the 12 holdovers from those classes who see action in every game. That’s actually what should happen in a lot of cases.
Alabama has a history of not featuring its elite signees until their sophomores or junior seasons. Those players are more mature and have been in the system and the strength and conditioning program longer. That gives them an eventual edge when competing with younger players that may have more overall talent and potential.
The 21-year-old should have the advantage on the 18 and 19-year player in most matchups.
Is this UGA football recruiting trend normal or abnormal?
That’s the last thing we deemed worthy to examine here. We compared what is going on at UGA with a few peer programs on the national stage.
What does the track record look like for Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in terms of getting their elite prospects on the field?
We wanted to see just how many recruits at those programs have developed into starting roles since signing in 2016.
Alabama’s classes since 2016 (27)
- 2016: 11 of 24 signees (This class rated No. 1 in the nation)
- 2017: 12 of 29 signees (This class rated No. 1 in the nation)
- 2018: 4 of 21 signees (This class rated No. 5 in the nation)
Clemson’s classes since 2016 (15)
- 2016: 9 of 20 signees (rated No. 11 in the nation)
- 2017: 4 of 14 signees (rated No. 16 in the nation)
- 2018: 2 of 17 signees (rated No. 7 in the nation)
Ohio State’s classes since 2016 (19)
- 2016: 11 of 24 signees (rated No. 4 in the nation)
- 2017: 8 of 21 signees (rated No. 2 in the nation)
- 2018: 0 of 26 signees (rated No. 2 in the nation)
NOTE: All class rankings were from the final 247Sports Team Composite ratings.
Do Georgia’s signees fit into the average here? At first glance, they do.
This is the part where it is necessary to remember that Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney were all entrenched in their programs over the last three years. They weren’t reshaping the program according to their philosophies.
That was exactly what Smart was doing. That’s why the 2017 class, his first full class, should really be seen as the first true full cycle of recruiting for Smart’s time at UGA.
The bottom line for this “Ask DawgNation” topic
Does this surprise you? It should in a perception versus reality comparison. Most would have thought the Bulldogs were getting more from the elite talent it has signed under Smart.
The Bulldogs have recruited some elite classes. But that is always an inexact science. The bigger takeaway is that Smart and company have done a credible job coaching despite not getting widespread contributions from the 2016 and 2017 classes as of yet.
The program has posted a 20-3 record over the last two seasons despite not seeing robust contributions from Smart’s two classes as of yet. Those two signing cycles have shown that the Bulldogs have been able to keep up with Alabama on the recruiting trail.
In fact, the biggest void at this time appears to be the biggest concern for the team right now. That would be the front seven on defense.
The Bulldogs signed 12 prospects to man those positions in the 2016 and 2017. When we scan through to see what all those recruits have done, we find that only three of those signees have started more than six games for the program.
Those 12 signees have a combined 48 starts. That’s just four starts per signee and those numbers really dip minus the 32 career starts made by Clark and Rochester.
The Bulldogs brought in Notre Dame grad transfer Jay Hayes to help boost up the front, but he has not yet been able to earn major minutes in the trenches.
Recruiting matters. But so does developing those targeted prospects once they arrive on campus.
This staff has actually benefitted from the progress made by those holdover Bulldogs from the Mark Richt era while they have waited on all those elite signees to flash the way Holloman did in Jacksonville.