Closer Look: Kirby Smart’s challenge to hire elite cornerbacks coach

Georgia coach Kirby Smart likely already had a short list of potential candidates in place in the event Charlton Warren didn't return for the 2021 season.

ATHENS —The Georgia football team’s primary offseason concern is the secondary, and one might think Charlton Warren’s sudden exit would exacerbate that.

It’s a fair concern, but Kirby Smart has proven himself capable of upgrading his staff before, and it’s a safe bet the Bulldogs’ head coach is not panicking.

“To me, this is part of the profession,” Smart said last year in New Orleans when discussing the hiring of Matt Luke to replace former offensive line coach Sam Pittman.

“When you win football games …. people get opportunities.”

Warren is expected to be announced as Indiana’s defensive coordinator, news that ESPN’s Adam Rittenburg first reported Sunday afternoon.

Comings and goings

Smart has had to replace at least one assistant coach each of his five years as UGA’s head coach.

Inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann and running backs coach Dell McGee are the only remaining members from Smart’s original 2016 on-field staff.

McGee, interestingly enough, played defensive back at Auburn when the Tigers went 11-0 in 1993.

Two of the members from Smart’s 2016 staff are now head coaches: Mel Tucker at Michigan State and Shane Beamer at South Carolina.

Current defensive coordinator Dan Lanning has had schools approach him about head coaching opportunities, too.

Lanning recently turned down an opportunity to become the Texas defensive coordinator.

RELATED: Dan Lanning is ready to run it back with Bulldogs

Help wanted

Georgia appears to need all the help it can get in the secondary with six former starters moving on, including All-American cornerback Eric Stokes and former starting cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and DJ Daniel.

Sophomore Tyrique Stevenson started at cornerback, too, moving from the nickleback position to corner for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Stevenson appeared to lack the quickness and technique needed to be competitive in the SEC at cornerback before transferring to Miami last week.

Georgia’s depth took a hit following last season when nickleback Divaad Wilson transferred to Central Florida, and safety Otis Reese transferred to Ole Miss.

Safety Lewis Cine is the only player who started all of last season returning on the back end, though Christopher Smith took over for injured Richard LeCounte midway through the 2020 campaign.

There will be no shortage of candidates for the Georgia coaching vacancy, and Smart likely already has a shortlist in place.

Warren and receivers coach Cortez Hankton were the only two UGA returning on-field coaches not to get raises following the 2019 season.

Players’ coach?

Sources have indicated Smart is looking for more of a players’ coach to take over the secondary.

Warren has been known as an authoritarian with his Air Force Falcons’ football military background.

The drill work observed by media at Georgia, and at Warren’s previous coaching stops, revealed a serious-minded, extremely detailed coach who allowed very little margin for error.

Smart, a former All-SEC safety and team captain at Georgia, is also known for his vocal coaching nature, making for intense settings.

Smart makes no bones about it, his program is built to compete annually for championships. “Pressure is a privilege,” Smart likes to say.

So while the name, tone of voice, and nuances of technique will change with a new secondary coach, Smart has said program identify will not.

“I think any time you build the infrastructure in a program, when people leave, as long as you’re not changing that infrastructure, it doesn’t create a lot of doubt or anxiety in the players,” Smart said two years ago after having to replace Tucker as secondary coach and DC.

Coaching chatter

Smart interviewed LSU cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond the last time the secondary coach position came open before he hired Warren.

Raymond is a Louisiana native who played at LSU before a six-year career in the NFL. In addition to being regarded as one of the top secondary coaches in the nation, Raymond is also the Tigers’ recruiting coordinator.

Tennessee defensive coordinator and secondary coach Derrick Ansley has been another name on the radar.

Ansley, who has NFL coaching experience, has recently been linked to the Oregon defensive coordinator opening.

Would Smart be willing to create a title and pay Ansley — or Raymond — coordinator-type of money, if those elite SEC secondary coaches had an interest?

Houston co-defensive coordinator and former West Virginia cornerbacks coach Doug Belk is another name on the radar, having worked with Smart at Alabama as a graduate assistant. Belk worked directly with Smart for two years, per his Mountaineers’ bio page.

The Georgia football budget is such that money is not expected to be an issue for Smart as he approaches candidates.

Many are aware former South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp spent time around the Georgia team during bowl practice and even earlier this month.

Muschamp, like Smart a former Georgia safety, began his career coaching defensive backs at West Georgia (1998), Eastern Kentucky (1999) and Valdosta State (2000).

But Muschamp, whose son Jackson is entering his second season on the team as a walk-on, would appear more in line for an analyst role with a comfortable $15.5 million buyout from South Carolina in hand.

If Smart is intent on promoting from within, current UGA defensive graduate assistant Nick Williams could get consideration.

Williams, like Smart, is from Bainbridge, Ga., and is already popular with the current players. Williams began his career at UGA as a safety before being moved to linebacker through his junior season.

Smart has not rushed his hires in the past, but with marquee players in demand in the secondary, from the prep ranks as well as the transfer portal, it’s fair to assume there will be a sense of urgency.

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