Ranking the best freshman from each Kirby Smart signing class
Most of the 2021 signing class for the Georgia Bulldogs is already on campus, as 16 of the 20 signees arrived as early enrollees.
This will allow each of them to go through spring drills and help get a jump-start on their college careers. And while Georgia figures to have one of the top teams in the country, it isn’t one without holes.
The Bulldogs would certainly benefit if some of the players in the 2021 signing class were of the instant impact variety. ESPN made the case for linebacker Smael Mondon being just that earlier in the week. Other 2021 signees to monitor include cornerback Nyland Green, tight end Brock Bowers and offensive tackle Amarius Mims.
With that subject in mind, we looked back on who the top freshman was in each of Kirby Smart’s previous five signing classes and how they played in their first season in Athens.
2016: Isaac Nauta
Both Nauta and quarterback Jacob Eason signed as 5-star prospects in the 2016 class. Eason was named the starting quarterback by the second game of the season. He had an up and down first season, as he threw 16 touchdowns to 8 interceptions while leading the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record.
Nauta on the other hand was more impressive in his first year in Athens. He caught 29 passes for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns, showing early on why he belonged at an SEC level.
Honorable mention: Jacob Eason
2017: Andrew Thomas
Quarterback Jake Fromm could be the answer here, given he helped lead Georgia to an SEC title and an appearance in the national championship game. He tossed 24 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions for the Bulldogs after taking over for an injured Eason in the opening quarter of the season.
But we’re going with Thomas for a number of reasons. Despite not enrolling at Georgia until the summer, he still locked down the right tackle spot as a true freshman and started all 15 games for Georgia. His play in 2017 helped give a false impression of just how easy it is to start on the offensive line as a true freshman.
Running back D’Andre Swift also turned heads as a freshman. As impressive as Fromm was in 2017, the rushing attack really made that Georgia team go, so we feel obliged to give it one of the guys who was opening up running lanes for Swift, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Honorable mention: Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift
2018: Tyson Campbell
This was the first time Georgia had signed the No. 1 signing class in the country. But the class didn’t produce a ton of immediate contributors.
Offensive linemen Trey Hill and Cade Mays earned starts later on in the season, while Jordan Davis’ late-season surge in playing time helped improve Georgia’s run defense.
Campbell ended up being a day-one starter at cornerback for Georgia, but even he had his freshman struggles. He was benched late in the year for redshirt freshman Eric Stokes before Campbell started in the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas.
Ultimately the 2018 class will be better remembered for its 5-star transfers — Mays, Justin Fields and Brenton Cox will all finish their college careers elsewhere — then what it did early on in their time in Athens. The likes of Zamir White, Adam Anderson and Azeez Ojulari all took a couple of years to see the field and make an impact at Georgia.
Honorable mention: Jordan Davis, Trey Hill, Cade Mays
2019: George Pickens
This was an easy one. Georgia saw impressive moments from the likes of Dominick Blaylock, Travon Walker and Nakobe Dean in 2019. But no freshman popped the way Pickens did in his first year on campus.
He ended up leading Georgia in receiving yards, catches and touchdown receptions. He made spectacular catches routinely and earned MVP honors for his 13-catch, 175-yard performance against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
It wasn’t all great from Pickens in 2019, as he was suspended for the first half of the Georgia Tech game for a violation of team rules and then got ejected for fighting in the second half of the same game. That ejection forced him to miss the first half of the SEC championship game against LSU.
But there is no denying the impact Pickens had on a Georgia team that badly needed help at wide receiver. Imagine how much worse the 2019 offense would’ve been if Pickens hadn’t been out there diving for passes.
Honorable mention: Dominick Blaylock, Travon Walker, Nakobe Dean
2020: Jermaine Burton
Burton didn’t produce the same numbers that Pickens did, but Burton still finished with 27 receptions for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2020.
Georgia did get solid contributions from a handful of 2020 signees, such as Jalen Carter’s touchdown against Tennessee, Kendall Milton running through defenders prior and Darnell Washington wowing with his massive size in the open field.
The Bulldogs’ top two signees in the class actually had little to no impact, as Kelee Ringo missed the entire season due to preseason labrum surgery and Broderick Jones was unable to crack the starting lineup.
There might not have been a true star performance in year one for any 2020 signee, but there were certainly enough highlights to provide optimism for the group going forward.
Honorable mention: Jalen Carter, Darnell Washington, Kendall Milton
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