How Georgia football has found success with graduate transfers and why it’s likely to continue
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Why Georgia football has found success with graduate transfers Lawrence Cager, Eli Wolf
Lawrence Cager told reporters this week he wanted to come play for Georgia out of high school. Cager was a member of the 2015 recruiting cycle. The Bulldogs ended up signing three wide receivers in that class, but Cager was not one of them, even though he was a higher-rated recruit than Georgia signee Michael Chigbu.
So Cager went to Miami. He redshirted his freshman season, which was also James Coley’s final year as the Miami offensive coordinator. Coley ended up becoming the wide receivers coach at Georgia and is now the team’s offensive coordinator.
Flash forward to the end of the 2018 campaign and the early departures of Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman for the NFL draft. That forced Georgia into finding some immediate help at the wide receiver position. Head coach Kirby Smart revealed this week Georgia kicked the tires on a number of possible players at the position.
But for a variety of reasons, those other options didn’t quite fit as well as Cager. His familiarity with Coley dating back to their time at Miami was a factor. As was the fact that he caught 6 touchdowns in 2018 for the Hurricanes while playing with quarterbacks far less talented than Jake Fromm. So it seemed like the perfect marriage of opportunity and comfort between Georgia and Cager.
“Getting the opportunity to play with them was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Cager said on why he came to Georgia. “At the same time, getting to be a part of this team and having Jake [Fromm] as a quarterback, I couldn’t have picked a better situation.”
That selection has proven beneficial for both sides. Cager is enjoying a career-year, as he leads the Bulldogs in receptions with 26 and receiving yards with 377. As for Georgia, it found a No. 1 wide receiver for quarterback Fromm, which has thus opened up the offense. Cager just had his best game as a Bulldog, as he brought in 7 catches for 132 yards and Georgia’s final touchdown in the 24-17 win over Florida.
Cager is hardly the first player to find success as a graduate transfer under Smart. He’s not even the only one on the current Georgia team, as tight end Eli Wolf is also having his best season in college after spending the past four years at Tennessee. Wolf didn’t produce the same raw numbers that Cager did against Florida. But the tight end did make the game-sealing third-down catch.
There are also past examples of graduate transfers playing key roles at under Smart. Maurice Smith — who was named the MVP of the 2016 team — spent his final year in college at Georgia after spending most of his college career at Alabama. Cameron Nizalek — the punter on Georgia’s 2017 SEC Championship team — also spent just one year at Georgia after transferring from Columbia.
But what’s made them so successful? Georgia has to give up a scholarship for a potential high school recruit — Cager and Wolf both count against Georgia’s 2020 recruiting class, meaning the Bulldogs will have two fewer players to take than they normally would – so there is some risk in taking a guy who could at most help you for just one year.
“We’ve had guys that came in here and didn’t play as graduate transfers, and you’re looking for the right fit and we just felt comfortable that it was the right fit with him and he was the one that made the most sense,” Smart said.
One example of a guy who didn’t pan out was defensive lineman Jay Hayes. He spent the 2018 season with Georgia after transferring from Notre Dame. In his final year at Notre Dame, he had 27 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. At Georgia, he had only 3 tackles total in 11 games.
While explaining the process through which Georgia picks a graduate transfer, Smart mentioned that they usually have some prior knowledge on a player, whether it be from an assistant on staff or through knowing a coach at another school. Smart knew Smith from his time at Alabama, while Coley had a pre-existing relationship with Cager. Even with a player like Wolf, a number of coaches on the Tennessee and Georgia staffs know each other with their time at other jobs.
Georgia isn’t just swiping right on players in hopes that they can just start exchanging messages.
“You have some connection, and you feel comfortable that they are going to fit in your program; otherwise, you don’t bring them in,” Smart said.
Georgia’s also made it clear they aren’t going to take the most talented player if there is a guy who might be a better fit with a team’s culture. Cager and Wolf both have reputations of being hard-working guys. That fits with Georgia’s ethos under Smart, as he wants practice to be more difficult than games.
“When he first got here I knew he was a hard worker, a determined player. To grad transfer, already means you’re a determined player,” tight end Charlie Woerner said of Wolf. “He’s a guy who was going to be an asset for our team and someone who was going to help us.”
Cager also added that he didn’t come to Georgia with the specific intentions of bettering his NFL draft prospects or emerging as Georgia’s top wide receiver.
“That’s what every receiver dreams of, but I’m just here to help the team,” Cager said. “I just came here to win and get a national championship.”
As for Georgia and the future of graduate transfers, Smart is going to do whatever he can to make his team better. It’s why he signed Justin Fields as a 5-star quarterback prospect only a year after signing Fromm. Talent trumps all, and the graduate transfer route is clearly a way to bolster a position or two.
Even with the Bulldogs bringing in elite recruiting class after elite recruiting class, the Bulldogs are still going to have holes. That’s why you’ve already seen Yahoo’s Pete Thamel float the idea that Houston quarterback D’Eriq King could end up being an option for Georgia. There could also be holes in the secondary and backfield depending on how Georgia deals with NFL draft attrition and the recruiting front.
So while Cager and Wolf might only have one year at Georgia, they’ve helped prove that players can come in and contribute here, even if a player wasn’t doing that a lesser program. And those players are also going to have the opportunity to compete for a national championship, something Cager wouldn’t be doing at Miami nor Wolf at Tennessee.
More Georgia football stories from around DawgNation
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- Georgia football podcast: CFP committee chair touts UGA rush defense as key resume factor
- Calculated side of Kirby Smart triggered late third down gamble
- As Georgia defensive line shines, Kirby Smart still looking ‘to find ways to use Travon Walker’s talents more’
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