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As more elite prospects continue to leave Georgia, Kirby Smart still wants ‘best players in the state to stay home’

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A deeper look at Georgia football in-state recruiting

Georgia and Kirby Smart began recruiting Arik Gilbert during the final summer of the Obama presidency.

Gilbert had been on the Bulldogs’ radar since the summer of 2016. He had yet to start high school at that point. Georgia was pursuing his services long before he blossomed into a 5-star prospect and the nation’s No. 1 tight end, per the 247Sports Composite. He’s a full-blown star for Marietta High School, becoming one of the best players in the state while living about two hours from Sanford Stadium.

In addition to having a massive need at the tight end position for this cycle, the Bulldogs also had the allure of being the home-state school. And that factor was a big part of Georgia’s pitch to Gilbert, according to his mother, Akiba.

“He (Georgia offensive coordinator James Coley) just really kind of emphasized that Georgia was home,” she said. “I really think it was a moment that he really started to think about how that looks for him in the future. In regard to staying at home and family being able to come to the game. But not just that. But being able to represent Georgia as an athlete.”

And yet with all that time and theoretical emotional pull, Georgia still wasn’t able to land a commitment from Gilbert. The No. 2 player in the state of Georgia announced his college decision on Wednesday, and he ended up picking LSU.

Gilbert becomes the latest in a growing trend of top Georgia prospects that elect to play their college football outside of the Peach State. Even as Georgia continues to recruit at an elite level — the Bulldogs are the only school to sign top-3 class in each of the past three recruiting cycles and currently sit with the No. 6 class in the 2020 rankings — the number of in-state recruits in the Bulldogs’ signing classes, especially of the high-end variety, have seen a precipitous drop.

In Georgia’s 2017 recruiting class, the Bulldogs signed 12 of the top 20 prospects, en-route to the No. 3 ranked signing class. The 2018 class, which finished No. 1 in the country, was buoyed by 9 in-state signees among that top-20 range. But starting in 2019, that number fell to three. And with 17 of the top-20 prospects in the 2020 class already committed, only two of the top-20 have pledged their services to Georgia.

Related: 5-star Arik Gilbert explains why he picked LSU over Georgia

So is Georgia eschewing the home-state kids to try and pursue higher-rated players elsewhere? Are Smart and his assistants overlooking the local kids, some of whom grew up dreaming of playing for the Bulldogs, in order to build more of a national powerhouse?

Smart doesn’t think so. In fact, he made it pretty clear that the state of Georgia is still the top priority from a recruiting standpoint.

“I would never change how we recruit the state of Georgia. It’s home base, it’s primary, it’s A-number-one, most important,” Smart said.

But he did acknowledge that Georgia can’t win every battle in its home state.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to get every kid,” Smart said. “I mean, there’s some good players in the state that have left and we’ve fought to get.”

To be fair, even on some of the kids Georgia has “missed” on in recent years, the Bulldogs have gone out and pulled elite players from other states. In 2019, wide receiver Jadon Haselwood was the top-ranked Georgia player and a long-time Bulldog commit. But he backed off his pledge and ended up signing with the Oklahoma Sooners.

The Bulldogs recovered by pulling wide receiver George Pickens — the top player from the state of Alabama — away from the Auburn Tigers. And to this point in their young careers, Pickens actually has more catches, yards and touchdowns, even as Georgia’s offense struggles at the moment.

In the 2020 class, many Georgia fans wanted a commitment from 4-star prospect Tank Bigsby. He is from Hogansville, Ga., in the western part of the state. But Georgia was also recruiting other elite running backs, such as Kendall Milton out of Clovis, Calif. Up until this month, Milton had been ranked as a 5-star running back and as a superior prospect to Bigsby. Georgia secured Milton’s commitment at the end of July, much to the excitement of many who wear red and black.

But just weeks after Milton’s decision, Bigsby decided that he would commit to Auburn, which is geographically closer to his hometown. Even as the Bulldogs miss on more and more in-state products, Smart and staff are doing well enough to pull top players from other states.

Since taking over as the head coach of the program, Smart has signed the No. 1 high school player from the following states: Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. He could possibly add Nevada, Arizona, South Carolina and Utah to that haul as well to go along with Washington D.C. if the Bulldogs were to land Darnell Washington, Kelee Ringo, Jordan Burch and Noah Sewell, to go with currently committed Mekhail Sherman.

But missing from that list is the state of Georgia. For all of Smart’s recruiting success, he still has not landed the No. 1 player in the state of Georgia in any of his recruiting classes.

Barring a big rise from offensive tackle Broderick Jones — currently ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the state —that trend will continue as Myles Murphy, a 5-star defensive end and the current No. 1 player in the state, is committed to Clemson. And the No. 1 prospect in the state for the 2021 cycle, quarterback Brock Vandagriff, is already committed to Oklahoma.

A deeper look shows that even as Georgia’s total number of commits from the has dipped — only four of Georgia’s 20 commits are from the state which would be the fewest number of in-state signees since recruiting rankings came into existence in 1999  — the Bulldogs are still landing some of the state’s best recruits. The Bulldogs have landed the No. 2 player in the state three times since Smart got to Georgia and landed the No. 3 player in 2017, 2018 and possibly 2020. Tate Ratledge, the No. 5 player in the state for the 2020 class, is also committed to the Bulldogs.

We’d also mention that outside linebacker Nolan Smith, who is from the Savannah, was the No. 1 overall recruit from the 2019 class. But he spent his finished his high school career at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., an elite boarding school that specifically prepares players for the rigors of college football.

There’s also an overwhelming amount of high-end recruits in the state of Georgia compared to some neighboring states. Because of this, other the elite programs have ramped up their recruiting efforts in the state of Georgia. Beginning with the 2017 recruiting cycle through the current one, Georgia produces an average of 36.75 blue-chip recruits — either a prospect with a 4- or 5-star ranking — per cycle.

Clemson has recruited Georgia incredibly well, landing the likes of Trevor Lawrence and  Murphy. The Tigers actually have more top-20 recruits from the state of Georgia than the Bulldogs do in this cycle, albeit with a 3-2 lead.

But Clemson has only one top-20 player from the state of South Carolina currently in its 2020 recruiting class. That would be Tyler Venables, who is the son of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.  Over the last four recruiting cycles, South Carolina has produced just 15 total blue-chip recruits, which has forced Clemson to look elsewhere in an effort to maintain its place among the national elite.

Another example of a school that has recruited more and more at a national level is Ohio State, in spite of recruiting more at the local level. But one key difference is that the state of Ohio has seen a talent drain, as the number of blue-chip recruits in the state has gone from 17 in 2017 to just 8 in this year’s class.

 How elite college football programs recruit their state

Georgia Top 20 in-state signees/commits Blue-Chip recruits
2017 12 33
2018 9 40
2019 3 40
2020 2 34
Clemson Top 20 in-state signees/commits Blue-Chip recruits
2017 1 4
2018 5 4
2019 2 3
2020 1 4
Alabama Top 20 in-state signees/commits Blue-Chip recruits
2017 6 16
2018 2 11
2019 5 15
2020 8 15
LSU Top 20 in-state signees/commits Blue-Chip recruits
2017 5 12
2018 11 13
2019 9 16
2020 6 15
Ohio State Top 20 in-state signees/commits Blue Chips
2017 7 17
2018 4 12
2019 5 13
2020 3 8

But for states like Georgia and Ohio, there’s an LSU where the top kids in the state are choosing to stay and play for the Tigers at a higher rate. LSU does have the baked-in benefit of being the only Power Five school in the state, offering a unique opportunity to those looking to stay close to home and play at a high level.

If you ask some of those Georgia players who did choose to remain in-state, you can hear that choosing to represent not just the University but the entire State of Georgia means a lot.

Junior offensive tackle Andrew Thomas — who comes from the Atlanta area — called playing for his home-state team, “A dream come true.” Senior tight end Charlie Woerner — who is from Tiger, Ga., and had the added benefit of being the nephew of Georgia great Scott Woerner — shared a similar sentiment.

“It means a lot,” Charlie Woerner said. “I was an hour and a half up the road from Rabun County, Georgia. It is awesome to play for your hometown team and for Georgia. It has meant a lot to me in my time here to play for Georgia.”

Related: More Georgia football Homegrown stories

One only has to listen to the player intros prior to the start of Georgia’s home games to understand how much being from the state means to the fan base. The cheers for the players from the state of Georgia are a little bit louder than those who hail from different parts of the country. The two loudest cheers by far are reserved for Rodrigo Blankenship and Jake Fromm, who come from Marietta, Ga., and Warner Robins, Ga., respectively.

Like some of his players, Smart made the choice to play for his home state, even if his hometown of Bainbridge, Ga., is much closer to Florida State than Athens. Being a Georgia guy is part of the appeal of Smart and why his approval rating is so high among the Georgia fan base, this past month notwithstanding.

There are few teams that have more talented rosters than Georgia. The Bulldogs could assemble a roster of just Georgia kids and probably be alright. But some years, Georgia could really need a running back and there might be a better one in North Carolina than in Georgia. It’s nothing against the Georgia kid, sometimes there are people who are just better options.

Even as Smart is having more success at landing players from around the country, he’s not ignoring the top players in the Peach State.

Because like most Georgia residents who cheer for the Bulldogs, Smart wants the best recruits from the state to come play for Georgia.

“I want the best players in the state to stay home. We’ll never change how we recruit the state of Georgia,” Smart said. “Why would you ever do that? There’s too many good players here.”

*All rankings are via the 247Sports Composite

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