Aside from the usual hiccup of a few star players leaving early for the NFL draft, and, more recently, seeing a player arrest, Kirby Smart’s Dawgs are having the kind of offseason that most programs generally only dream about.
Since the season ended with a Sugar Bowl win, Georgia has seen the addition of the highly regarded Todd Monken as offensive coordinator, hinting at (promising?) the sort of more wide-open approach that was missing too much of the time last season.
Combine that with the arrival of an experienced transfer quarterback in Jamie Newman, who looks like much more of a dual threat than the departed Jake Fromm, and the signing of the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class (for the second time in three years), and you’d already consider it a pretty awesome winter in Athens.
But, wait, there’s more!
This week, Smart set the college football world abuzz by getting the second most recognized football staffer in Tuscaloosa, head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, to leave the Crimson Tide after 13 seasons for Athens, by offering him what Nick Saban wasn’t willing to give him: the sort of on-field coaching position that eventually might lead to a head-coaching job.
Now, let’s be honest, the media optics on the Cochran-to-UGA move are a lot more impactful than him actually joining Smart’s coaching staff is likely to prove. The ebullient New Orleans native, two-time National Strength Coach of the Year, managed to become something of a celebrity in an off-field role at Alabama, even starring in one of Saban’s bank commercials.
Cochran, who didn’t play football and never has had an on-field coaching job before, will become Georgia’s new special teams coach. On the plus side, that will put his infectiously upbeat go-go personality in contact with just about every area of the team, and no doubt will see the Dawgs’ special teamers going the extra mile.
Cochran, a close friend of Smart in their days together on Saban’s staff at Bama, also will be able to apply his rah-rah thing to Georgia’s already highly effective recruiting.
His lack of experience in an on-field coaching position (special teams or anything else) will be compensated for, in part, by him being able to rely on the off-field special teams analysts UGA already has in place.
Yes, when it comes to coaching the special teams players, especially the kickers, I’d much rather have someone who knows kicking inside and out in charge (like, say, Kevin Butler, who as an middle-aged student assistant was Rodrigo Blankenship’s mentor his first couple of years). That’s especially true considering the Dawgs will have a new placekicker this year.
Still, Smart’s raid on Saban’s staff, taking away someone who’d been a part of St. Nick’s six national championships, has to count as what ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called “a SIGNIFICANT loss for Bama and ridiculous coup by Kirby and UGA!” Added Herbstreit: “Is this the first sign of a ‘changing of the guard’ in the SEC???”
A bit hyperbolic, but, as a more restrained Gary Danielson of CBS Sports said, “It’s a good, strong, aggressive move. Kirby is again letting everyone know that his goal is to take down the top. He’s only got one goal: Plant the flag at the top of the mountain, and whoever he’s got to climb over it doesn’t matter.”
Basically, at the very least, Cochran leaving Bama for UGA is addition by subtraction. Even if he doesn’t prove to be the game’s greatest special teams coach, he’ll no longer be a part of the Bama staff that turns out incredibly well-conditioned players who tend to dominate fourth quarters. And, in the SEC, Bama’s loss is everyone else’s gain.
(When you hear Bama loyalists complaining conspiratorially about the timing of Smart’s hiring of Cochran, right in the middle of offseason conditioning, you know the Tide program has suffered a real blow.)
So, with Georgia adding a new offensive guru with a more wide-open reputation, returning almost all of a defense that already was one the best in the country, bringing in more 5-star talent, and now prying away a key member of Bama’s staff, it’s no wonder fans are getting a lot more excited than you generally might expect for a “rebuilding” (or, now, really, “reloading”) season.
No, all that top-rated talent is no guarantee of success on the field come fall, and Georgia’s already learned the hard way that a No. 1 recruiting class doesn’t necessarily produce even a shot at a national championship. As Smart himself noted a couple of years ago, “I’d trade that No. 1 [recruiting] ranking for the last No. 1 ranking in the college football poll.”
So far, Smart’s elite recruiting has resulted in Georgia finishing No. 2, No. 7 and No. 4 the past three seasons — not bad, but not what UGA is really after.
Still, as long as the Dawgs are pulling in Top 3 recruiting classes (as they have for Smart’s entire run in Athens), Georgia is going to remain in the College Football Playoff conversation (which means they’ll be considered a national title contender just about every year).
It’s one reason many college football observers don’t think that the Dawgs losing most of their starting offensive line, as well as their top two running backs from last season, will be the sort of insurmountable obstacle that it might be for other programs. Behind those departing starters was a lot of talent, and the latest signing class will add even more prospects who could work their way into considerable playing time.
Add an upgrading of the wide receiver corps (last year’s Achilles heel for the Bulldogs) and you don’t find anyone writing off the 2020 Dawgs (except for the usual trash talkers in the state of Florida).
In the end, though, even a multitude of offseason “victories” won’t really matter if the Dawgs don’t get it done come September — particularly the third week of the season, when Smart and Cochran will return to Tuscaloosa to take on their former boss.
It will be a monumental early season challenge, but Bulldog Nation is hopeful that the conclusion of that game sees Cochran erupting in his trademark “Yeah! Yeahh!! Yeahhh!!!”
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