ATHENS – If there is one distinction that can be made with regard to Kirby Smart’s recruiting acumen, it’s his knack for finding the hidden gem of a prospect.
As we close in on yet another National Signing Day on Wednesday, anybody who pays attention to such things knows that Georgia always – always – recruits well. On average, the Bulldogs’ classes ranked among the top 10 in the country and pretty much never out of the top 15. And so it follows that UGA usually finishes seasons that way in the end-of-year top 25 rankings.
But in an examination of Georgia’s last three recruiting classes — the last two inked by Smart since he showed up in December of 2015 — where the Bulldogs are doing a little better is finding that prospect that a lot of other programs missed on.
That was particularly evident in 2016, which represented Smart’s first full recruiting class. It was a strong class overall, bringing in a national ranking of sixth – which was actually fourth among SEC teams. But where Smart and his staff made up some ground on the other guys was getting some bang out of the bottom of their class.
There were at least four 3-star recruits in that class who made major contributions on Georgia’s SEC championship team this past season. Defensive end David Marshall, cornerback Tyrique McGhee, offensive guard Solomon Kindley and tailback Brian Herrien were all 3-star prospects who either started full or part time or played regularly during the season.
That doesn’t include J.R. Reed, who Smart brought in via transfer from Tulsa. Reed, who was rated a 2-star recruit by 247Sports.com coming out of high school at Prestonwood Christian in Plano, Texas, started every game at safety for the Bulldogs this past season.
Smart and the Bulldogs also registered some “hits” on some of their higher-rated players, such as wide receiver Javon Wims, a junior college transfer, and Tyler Clark, a relatively low-ranked 4-star who played at an all-conference level as a sophomore. And the 2016 class also included the surprise late addition of Riley Ridley, who made an immediate impact as a freshman and promises to be a regular contributor the rest of his career.
Georgia’s three 5-stars from that class – quarterback Jacob Eason, receiver Mecole Hardman Jr. and tight end Isaac Nauta – all were either one-time starters or regular contributors. Misses in the class included 4-star outside linebacker Chancey Manac, 4-star linebacker Jaleel Laguins and 3-star punter Marshall Long.
The book is still out on the Bulldogs’ 2017 signing class, which brought in a No. 3 national ranking and was second in the SEC behind top-ranked Alabama. Georgia hauled in three 5-star recruits in that class – offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson, defensive back Richard LeCounte III and tailback D’Andre Swift — none of whom earned starter status this past season but all of whom still have promising futures.
Quarterback Jake Fromm was a high 4-star prospect who did earn some 5-star ratings. As a 14-game starter on the nation’s No. 2 team, he has to be considered a major boon for the Bulldogs. And the same can be said for Ahkil Crumpton. While he didn’t make a major impact, the junior college transfer from California was a 2-star prospect and a late addition who had no other major college offers, yet finished with five catches and touchdown and three kick returns.
There was only one clear miss in the 2017 class and that could be debated until his career completed. Offensive tackle D’Marcus Hayes transferred in from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College with the expectation of becoming an immediate starter. He ended up redshirting and could become a contributor eventually.
Some have referred to Wilson, a consensus 5-star prospect and the No. 3-ranked tackle in the country coming out of Brooklyn as a bust. He struggled early with the summer Georgia heat, but he, too, could end up starting as a redshirt freshman or sophomore. High 4-star defensive back Deangelo Gibbs is not currently enrolled in school and has proven a disappointment considering he flashed as a potential starting safety last spring.
Whether to credit Smart or the previous coaching staff is a matter of debate, but a major contribution toward Georgia’s SEC championship and College Football Playoff run this past season came from the Bulldogs’ 2015 class. Ranked sixth nationally and fourth among SEC teams, that class produced 5-star prospects Trent Thompson and Terry Godwin, both who were extremely productive every-day starters.
The Class of 2015 also produced Butkus Award winning-linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive starters Jonathan Ledbetter and Natrez Patrick. They were all 4-star prospects. And Georgia is certainly getting the most cornerback Deandre Baker, a former 3-star prospect out of Miami who started every game this past season and seven as a sophomore and has played in all but three of a possible 41 games in his college career.
But there were a lot of misses in that 2015 class, inked by former head coach Mark Richt. Among them are defensive backs Rashad Roundtree and Rico McGraw, offensive lineman Pat Allen and defensive end Chauncey Rivers. All of them were 4-star prospects, and only Allen, a redshirt junior offensive guard, is still with the team.
But it’s all relative. Any player still with the team and remaining in good academic and citizenship standing at the school has to be considered a success. Those players are contributing in ways that can’t necessarily be recognized on Saturdays in the fall. They’re giving the starters good looks as scout-team players and serving as backups in games.
Generally, the hope is such contributions are coming from your 3-star signees. But as the Bulldogs’ 2018 class indicates, they’re signing fewer of those these days. Georgia already has either signed or has committed six 5-star-rated recruits in the class that will be completed Wednesday. The majority of the remaining 25 carry 4-star status.