ATHENS — Kirby Smart said he knows he’s supposed to say Georgia football met all of its needs with Wednesday’s haul of 20 early signees, but the head coach knows that might not be entirely accurate.
After all, Smart pointed out, how can he know exactly what the team needs are when underclassmen have until the middle of January to declare themselves eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft?
Still, the Bulldogs’ 2021 Class is impressive, to be sure. Georgia ranks No. 3 in the nation per the 247Sports composite and features eight Top 100 players and the local flair of 13 in-state prospects
It’s UGA’s largest class of early enrollees with 15 players expected to be on campus in January.
“It’s certainly the new trend,” Smart said, pointing out the COVID-19 recruiting restrictions and considerations likely contributed.
“They wanted to be near their families and have their families be able to watch them play. That’s been a big added factor during the pandemic, so I’m excited about the class.”
Where’s the problem?
Smart and his coaching staff surely have a good idea which players are most likely to move on, such as junior cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell.
One of the two players to flip from the Bulldogs on signing day was De’Jahn Warren, the nation’s No. 1-ranked JUCO cornerback. The pull of new Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders was apparently too much for UGA to overcome.
The fact Warren wasn’t drawn more to the competition level of the SEC compared with the FCS ranks is revealing enough to consider the JUCO’s flip a blessing in disguise.
But, Smart conceded, he wouldn’t mind adding “another defensive back and another defensive lineman” before the traditional February signing day.
“There’s a different market available when people decide to leave or transfer,” Smart said, referring to how recruiting changes in January and beyond.
“It can go both ways; it could happen to us, and we could benefit from it.”
In other words, look for Georgia to benefit from the transfer portal at cornerback in January.
“Havoc” has been the buzz word for the Georgia defense the past two seasons, the Bulldogs tops in the SEC in total defense and run defense, and third in the league with 24 sacks.
Georgia scored high in that department with 5-star prospects Xavian Sorey (No. 20 overall player in the nation) and Smael Mondon (29), the top two ranked outside linebackers in the nation.
The Bulldogs will continue to have a wealth of talent in that position meeting room, with former No. 1 overall recruit Nolan Smith (2019 class) returning along with last year’s No. 2-rated outside linebacker, MJ Sherman.
Strength on strength
Smart shrugged off the bait when asked if Florida had passed Georgia in the SEC East, referring to Georgia’s glaring downfall of inexperience and injured quarterbacks in this year’s game in Jacksonville.
“I will say that a lot of football boils down to the line of scrimmage,” Smart said, “and I still think that we have really good line of scrimmages.”
The Georgia offensive line is primed to evolve into one of college football’s best, even with senior Ben Cleveland moving on and the possible exits of senior Justin Shaffer and junior center Trey Hill.
Matt Luke will be one more year into transitioning UGA into more of an athletic group that can provide enough power while also being capable of blocking better in space.
The Bulldogs signed only four offensive linemen in this year’s class, the minimum by Smart’s standard, but each brings a proven and impressive resume.
Offensive tackle Amarius Mims is the highest-rated player in the class to date, a 5-star ranked No. 7 overall in the nation, No. 1 in the state of Georgia, and No. 3 at his position.
“That’s a depth position that we always target,” Smart said. “It’s a developmental position. I say it every year, ‘Offensive lineman, it’s really hard to come in and play.’
“I am really excited about this group. They are athletic. They have great size. They are really bright, good kids.”
What about Brock?
Quarterback is a developmental position, too, especially when you’re running the Pro Style, Air Raid concepts offensive coordinator Todd Monken has brought to Georgia.
USC transfer JT Daniels has shown just how effective the Bulldogs can be with the scheme, and local QB signee Brock Vandagriff said that’s one of the things he liked about Georgia.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder from Prince Avenue Christian continues to dominate the small private ranks.
Vandagriff is expected to lead his team, coached by his father, to the Class 1A state title and finish with its only loss to Rabun County (Ga.) and South Carolina signee Gunner Stockton.
With Daniels expected back, the real race could be for the No. 2 snaps as redshirt freshman and former Florida Class 8A state champ Carson Beck and Vandagriff look to overcome the comfort zone Smart seems to have with redshirt junior Stetson Bennett.
Far less drama is expected in the quarterback room moving forward, but the QB competition makes for an interesting spring, at the very least.
The big question
Smart hinted at the question most everyone has but doesn’t want to confront: Will Georgia lose junior nose tackle Jordan Davis?
The case has been made that the Bulldogs aren’t losing national championships to Alabama and Clemson on the front end of the recruiting process, but rather, the back end.
The Tide and Tigers have several key players who are draftable each season return to become high first-round picks, rather than turn pro early and fall into the second half of the first round or beyond.
Consider, what would Georgia look like if D’Andre Swift (second round), Solomon Kindley (fourth round) and Jake Fromm (fifth round) returned this season?
Davis, a 6-foot-6, 335-pound player, would be a cornerstone in the Georgia defense who could win the Outland Trophy while working himself into the lottery ranks of the 2022 NFL draft.
The Bulldogs sights are set on a title run with an explosive offense coming back — the possibility of LSU opt out Arik Gilbert ultimately wearing red and black — and Davis would be the key cog in a reloaded defense.
Smart, facing the prospect of replacing senior interior defensive linemen Julian Rochester and Devonte Wyatt, explained why he’s looking for another defensive tackle via transfer in January.
“I always want to get two pillars, I’m talking about a guy who won’t give up the point and can make a run or make it hard to run against,” Smart said. “Those are always hard to find in defensive linemen, which is who we love to have.”
Even the best of incoming freshman can’t fill that sort of role, exhibited by the drop-off from Davis to a most agile and athletic Jalen Carter this season.
The transfer portal could hold the answer, and that’s where Georgia football next moves on to with the impressive early haul complete.
There’s more work ahead if Georgia is to return to the College Football Playoff next season.
Here’s a speculative look at one opinion on which players could return to Georgia next season:
Defensive line (11)
RS Senior Julian Rochester
Senior Devonte Wyatt
Junior Jordan Davis
RS Sophomore Tramel Walthour
Sophomore Travon walker
RS Freshman Tymon Mitchell
RS Freshman Bill Norton
RS Freshman Zion Logue
Freshman Jalen Carter
Freshman Warren Brinson
Freshman Nazir Stackhouse
Outside linebacker (5)
Junior Robert Beal
Junior Adam Anderson
RS Sophomore Azeez Ojulari
Sophomore Nolan Smith
Freshman Mekhail Sherman
Interior linebacker (6)
Senior Nate McBride
Junior Channing Tindall
Junior Quay Walker
Sophomore Nakobe Dean
Sophomore Trezman Marshall
RS Freshman Rian Davis
RS Junior William Poole
RS Junior Latavious Brini
Sophomore Tyrique Stevenson
Sophomore Lewis Cine
Freshman Major Burns
RS Junior Ameer Speed
Freshman Jalen Kimber
Freshman Kelee Ringo
Freshman Daran Branch
Junior Jake Camara
Freshman Jared Zirkel
Offensive line (13)
Junior Jamaree Salyer
RS Sophomore Owen Condon
RS Sophomore Warren Ericson
RS Freshman Xavier Truss
RS Freshman Warren McClendon
RS Freshman Clay Webb
Freshman Broderick Jones
Freshman Tate Rutledge
Freshman Chad Lindberg
Freshman Austin Blaske
Freshman Devon Willock
Freshman Sedrick Van Pran
Freshman Cameron Kinnie
RS Junior Stetson Bennett
RS Sophomore JT Daniels
Freshman Carson Beck
RS Junior Matt Landers
RS Sophomore Kearis Jackson
Sophomore George Pickens
Sophomore Dominick Blaylock
Freshman Marcus Rosemy
Freshman Jermaine Burton
Freshman Arian Smith
Freshman Justin Robinson
Freshman Ladd McConkey
Running backs (4)
Junior James Cook
sophomore Kenny McIntosh
Freshman Kendall Milton
Freshman Daijun Edwards
Tight ends (4)
RS Sophomore John FitzPatrick
RS Freshman Ryland Goede
RS Freshman Brett Seither
Freshman Darnell Washington