I’m not sure all of Bulldog Nation fully appreciates what Kirby Smart has accomplished with his first UGA recruiting class.
Well, yes, I’ve heard some fans say, Smart’s first class was ranked in the Top 10 nationally, but so were most of Mark Richt’s. And the class is kind of small, at only 20 players (as of now). And don’t forget a couple of highly touted in-state prospects got away.
But that’s burying the lead, as we say in the news business. The fact that Smart’s first class includes three 5-star prospects (matching Bama) — and still could add a fourth if wide receiver Demetris Robertson decides to become a Bulldog — is flat-out remarkable. First-year coaches don’t generally sign three 5-stars.
Plus, half of Georgia’s 2016 recruiting class consists of 4-star players, and Smart managed to steal a couple from his former employer and flip a leading Auburn prospect, too. As for the ones that got away, well, that whole lock-down-the-borders mentality is just unrealistic in a state that’s as heavily recruited by big-time programs as Georgia is.
I think perhaps the timing of some of the bigger announcements diminished the sense of drama a bit (and, let’s face it, National Signing Day is all about the show). The fact that two of Georgia’s 5-stars were already enrolled in Athens and most of its big names committed early in the day, while a couple of the ones that got away announced later, hurt in perception. A big finish tends to wow more than a hot start.
But, considering he had less than two months to try and hold on to Richt’s recruits while adding a few of his own (and spent half that time still coaching the Crimson Tide’s defense as it prepared to play for the national championship), what Smart accomplished is a minor miracle.
Not that it’s the perfect recruiting class, by any means. The tally of offensive linemen, a position of dire need (and an area generally not recruited well for years at UGA under Richt), came up a bit wanting, and the loss of top prospect E.J. Price to Southern Cal really hurts. But I was glad to see Smart himself speaking out about that.
“I think when you go to the offensive line, it’s not exactly what we want,” he said Wednesday. “If you say what’s the number one need going into 2017, it’s offensive tackles. … That’s the most deficient area on our front.”
Still, the composite ranking of the class as the seventh best in the country is not too shabby, though as I’ve said before, where Georgia is ranked by the recruiting services (who make their money pushing this horse-race mentality) matters less to me than how the coaching staff did in addressing the program’s most pressing personnel needs.
In that regard, aside from the offensive line I’d say Smart and his staff did a fine job. Even if Robertson doesn’t come on board, this class addresses the Dawgs’ need to bolster their receiving corps thanks to the signing of Tyler Simmons and Javon Wims. Plus, adding speedy 5-star Mecole Hardman of Elberton, who likely will start out at cornerback but also probably will return kicks and maybe see some time at receiver, is a major win for Smart.
Georgia also got a promising running back in 4-star Elijah Holyfield (a must every year in the SEC) and added talent to its defensive front with 4-star defensive tackle Michail Carter and 3-star defensive lineman David Marshall.
I would have liked to see a placekicker signed, in addition to the punter that was added to the class, but a lot of walk-ons have graduated to the starting kicker spot at Georgia in the past and it could be that Smart already has his eye on a preferred walk-on for that job.
Overall, when you recall that, in the immediate wake of Richt’s firing it looked like the Dawgs could lose Jacob Eason, one of the top two quarterbacks up for grabs nationally this year, the end result is about as good as Georgia fans realistically could have hoped.
As I noted earlier, some fans were a bit alarmed by the size of Georgia’s class, with 20 signees (so far) when there were 25 slots available. But, judging from what Smart said Wednesday, he has plans for those open slots in the next recruiting cycle and didn’t see any need to “reach” for signees. Truth be told, some of Richt’s larger classes had a few of those “reaches” in them and they didn’t always pay off.
As the new head coach said Wednesday, “I’m not in a hurry, I’m not in panic mode. … I think it’s important in your first year to have those spots available for next year. … I’ve talked to a lot of guys that have been in a similar situation. … A mistake they made was to try to fill holes, fill spots, and when you do that you hurt next year’s signing class, which I anticipate being one of our better ones because it’s our first full recruiting cycle.”
While on the subject of recruiting, I think some fans obsess about it to the point where they miss the bigger picture, which is what you do with the talent you sign in February. Can you develop their on-field potential and keep them in school? As Georgia fans know all too well from recent years, that’s easier said than done.
But Smart knows that. As he said Wednesday at Butts-Mehre, “Today, for you guys, may be about stars and rankings. To me it’s about … making sure these kids understand what’s important to their success is graduating and becoming great players and becoming productive players as a whole. That’s what this class will be judged on. How productive are they four years from now? Then, walking across that stage and getting that diploma.”
That’s Smart talk in more ways than one.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.