ATHENS — J.R. Reed was a guy with a good pedigree but a middling résumé when he put himself on the transfer market last year. He didn’t start in his one year at Tulsa, a team with a losing record, so when he reached out to the new coaches at Georgia, they couldn’t have been overwhelmed.
But Reed had two things going for him: He is a cousin of Deangelo Gibbs, a highly recruited cornerback, and new Georgia coach Kirby Smart brought to the Bulldogs his overriding philosophy when it comes to roster management.
Get as many options as you can. Then sort it out when they get to campus.
“They told me I had a chance, and that’s all I needed to know,” said Reed, the son of former NFL receiver Jake Reed and nephew of former NFL safety Dale Carter.
The result: Reed has started every game this season on Georgia’s impressive defense, and he is second on the team in tackles, one of the reasons the Bulldogs are unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in the country.
Players who Smart inherited make up most of the 2017 starting lineup: 13 of the 22 who started against Missouri, as well as tailback Sony Michel and the injured defensive star Trenton Thompson. But that’s been supplemented by players like such as Reed, punter Cameron Nizialek (a graduate transfer from Columbia), Smart’s nearly full recruiting classes, and other players who are part of a general commitment to always be at the NCAA scholarship limit of 85.
“It certainly helps to be operating at a full load,” Smart said.
The roster management has manifested itself in depth, resulting in:
- Better special teams, with a mixture of first-team players and reserves. The better your reserves, the better your special teams.
- Better ability to absorb injuries, such as the injuries to the defensive line the past few weeks.
- Not depending on young talent right away. Junior Kendall Baker’s emergence at left guard is one of the reasons that 5-star offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson is redshirting, as is highly touted freshman Netori Johnson. The presence of Reed meant that 5-star safety Richard LeCounte and highly touted Deangelo Gibbs didn’t have to start right away.
Roster management, or hoarding as many good players as possible, is also key to the program’s practice strategy. It makes practices harder than games.
“We’ve got more fast people,” Smart said. “I don’t know it’s the number 85 [as the main reason.] I think the total overall speed of the team has increased, the depth of the team has increased.
“The part people don’t talk about is outside the 85, the 10 or 15 walk-ons we’ve been able to get in here have done a tremendous job, not only from a special teams standpoint. Prather Hudson’s special teams contributions and Christian Payne’s contributions, so many guys that have been walk-ons on the scout team that give us a great look each day.”
Then there’s just the idea, validated pretty much everywhere it’s been tried, that the more talent you bring in the luckier you get.
That’s Smart’s philosophy on recruiting high-end players, such as quarterbacks. Already have Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm in the program? That didn’t stop Georgia from chasing Justin Fields, the No.1 player in the nation, and getting his commitment. Smart has said he tells recruits he will try to recruit over them the next cycle, so they’ll have to keep competing.
But then there are the players such as Nizialek, who was an unknown graduate transfer from Columbia, an FCS school. He reached out to Georgia and offered to walk on, and even with two punters in the program (Marshall Long and Brice Ramsey) the Bulldogs accepted Nizialek. He won the job and has been excellent this season.
A week before the season began, Georgia also inked Ahkil Crumpton, a little-known junior college transfer. Crumpton hasn’t had a huge impact yet, but he’s provided depth and could be used more down the stretch.
Smart also hasn’t tended to give up on players, as long as there’s still room for them under the scholarship limit. They may help down the line, as Baker – who few had in the running for a starting job – has shown.
When Reed received a scholarship from Georgia last year the perception was in many quarters that it was just to help the Bulldogs get Gibbs.
“I didn’t really care what they wanted at that time,” Reed said. “I was here, and I believed in myself, and I knew what I could do. If I worked hard I could win a position on this team.”
And he did, once again validating what Georgia will do under Smart: Get good players on campus, then sort it out later, hopefully with great results. This year, they have been.