For Dawgs fans, G-Day isn’t just about impressing recruits with big crowd

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Georgia fans filling Sanford Stadium to the brim for the 2016 G-Day game was an impressive sight.

Back before packing the stadium for spring intrasquad games became the latest weapon in the ever-escalating college football recruiting arms race, the most compelling reason for fans to attend G-Day was to preview the team you’d see in the fall, especially the newly signed freshmen.

That, and one more chance to see the Dawgs play in Athens, usually with glorious spring weather.

The quarterback competition between Jake Fromm (left) and Justin Fields will draw fans to G-Day. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

But, while G-Day used to be mainly for the fans, letting thousands of potential future paying customers into the stands for free to soak up some of that Between the Hedges atmosphere — and for coaches to see how young players react to performing in front of a crowd — nowadays fans’ warm bodies are wanted in Sanford Stadium seats primarily to provide an impressive backdrop for a national telecast and impress high school prospects. 

As athletics director Greg McGarity said this past week in one of his periodic emails to boosters, “We all recognize the influence a packed house can make on prospective and current student-athletes, so let’s show up and have a day of excitement for an entire nation to witness on ESPN, along with those of us in attendance in Sanford Stadium!”

Quite a change from the days, just a few years ago, when some schools were dispensing with spring games in favor of a more productive controlled scrimmage. Even those programs, like UGA’s, that still embraced having their team play in front of a crowd to wrap up spring practice tended to make them rather low-key, casual affairs.

I enjoyed those relaxed G-Days that drew a little over 20,000 or so, where you could park across from Reed Hall a couple of hours before kickoff and stroll casually into the stadium. Early arrivals got their pick of where to sit (which is why you usually could find the King brothers in the shade under the overhang on the 50-yard-line). If the game was televised, it usually was on one of the lesser regional sports channels.

But, after some schools that drew big spring game crowds started publicizing the numbers, getting a bigger crowd became more important. During the Mark Richt era, UGA doubled its usual G-Day attendance into the mid-40,000s (in part because an admission charge was dropped in favor of encouraging donation of canned goods for charity). They added the pregame flag football game featuring past Georgia lettermen as an added incentive, too.

The 2015 G-Day game, Richt’s last, had an announced attendance of 46,185, an amusingly specific (and probably somewhat fanciful) figure, since there was no counting of folks entering the stadium.

Then, Kirby Smart arrived from Alabama (one of those schools that routinely drew a nearly full house for its spring games) and, recognizing the need to give the program a boost of national buzz, the new coach challenged Bulldog Nation to fill Sanford Stadium’s 92,746 seats for the 2016 spring game, which he smartly dubbed “93K Day.” He even had Ludacris give a pregame mini concert.

By the time Ludacris finished performing, Smart had gotten his 93,000 (actually probably closer to 100,000 before they finally started turning folks away) and made a big splash in his debut as coach.

The 2017 G-Day game crowd wasn’t nearly as large as in Kirby Smart’s first year. (John Paul Van Wert/UGA)

However, after getting off to a bit of a rough start with an 8-5 season, Smart backed off a bit for the 2017 G-Day game, scrupulously avoiding a call for 93,000 or any other number. He did say that “our fan base should feel challenged.” But, he added, “as far as what [attendance] number we have, I’m not going to say an over or under. I don’t think it’s that important.”

Official attendance at the free-admission game announced by UGA was 66,133, which ranked as the second-largest G-Day crowd ever. However, quite a few observers thought the actual number of bodies in the stadium looked about 10,000 to 15,000 less than that (with the lower level not quite full and the upper level mostly empty).

Not that the reduced spring crowd seemed to do any harm to Smart’s recruiting. After all, Georgia signed the consensus best class in the country in February (though having an SEC Championship season and playing in the National Championship Game might have had a little something to do with that).

This year, however, Smart seems to be back to thinking that the G-Day attendance figure is important, and pressure is back on for fans to fill Sanford again for the 2018 spring game, set for 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.

G-Day is “a big part of our recruiting piece,” Smart told Atlanta sports radio station 680 The Fan this past week. “We need a huge G-Day … because that’s what carries over with these kids.”

However, they’re not using the 93K angle this year, since ongoing construction on the west end of the stadium will make thousands of seats unavailable.

Unfortunately, the days when early arrivals could sit wherever they wanted have fallen victim to the athletic administration’s growing need to micromanage every facet of the game-day experience.

Upon entering the stadium at the G-Day game this year, fans will be given a “commemorative pass” instructing them to sit in a particular section (though not assigning specific seats). If there’s a section you prefer, you’re encouraged to enter through the gate closest to it, though there’s no guarantee you’ll get the section you want.

All of this is in the name of ensuring “that each guest has an enjoyable experience” in the face of “expected high demand and temporarily reduced seating,” as an athletic association press release explained. Gates open at 1 p.m.

So, it appears low-key, relaxed spring games have gone the way of floppy disks and VCRs.

As DawgNation’s Chip Towers noted recently, spring games now “are 2-hour, made-for-TV recruiting propaganda exercises.”

Coach Kirby Smart says that a packed house for G-Day is a big part of his recruiting plan. (Steffenie Burns/UGA)

That’s true even at halftime. It used to be you’d get some sort of fan contest between halves of the G-Day game, or maybe a couple of former Dawgs quarterbacks facing off in a passing contest. One year, we even had Frisbee-catching dogs! This year, the halftime entertainment will be the introduction of Georgia’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

Of course, running counter to the athletic association’s emphasis on the need for fans to show up for the G-Day game is the fact that you now routinely can see the game live on TV (the game Saturday will be telecast nationally on ESPN). You can listen to the game on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB.

Those looking for a reason to actually be at the stadium for what is essentially a glorified scrimmage — where quarterbacks aren’t hit and punts and kickoffs aren’t returned — can take note that this G-Day will be the first opportunity to view the brand-new Daktronics high-definition LED video board, which, at 52 feet high by 100 feet wide, is 30 percent bigger than the old one, and reputedly provides greater image quality and a higher brightness. It also has been relocated slightly, so that more fans can see it clearly.

Also, in his latest email blast, McGarity touted “the new 260,000-watt Danley Sound Labs audio system” that is supposed to feature improved speech intelligibility and low-frequency response.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t blast fans’ eardrums. I remember fans holding their hands over their ears when the last “new sound system” was introduced at a G-Day game.

Despite the construction on the west end, there will be a G-Day Dawg Walk (an idea introduced two years ago for 93K Day), but, it won’t be in the Tate Center parking lot as usual. Instead, the team will walk the pathway between the Tate Center and Miller Learning Center at 2:50 p.m.

Truth be told, though, despite the emphasis on impressing recruits, for many UGA fans, G-Day is still about getting an early look at what we can expect of the team this fall. And, this year, that mainly means wanting to see highly touted 5-star freshman quarterback Justin Fields as he faces off with the freshman phenom from a year ago, Jake Fromm.

Fans will be watching to see how running back Elijah Holyfield performs Saturday at G-Day. (John Paul Van Wert/UGA)

There are other aspects of the team that fans are anxious to see, including what the depth chart on the defensive front looks like (a recent concern of Smart’s), how the linebacking corps looks after losing all its starters, what the secondary looks like with three spots open for new starters, which receivers look likely to join Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley in the game rotation, and whether Elijah Holyfield might be capable of pushing D’Andre Swift for the starting tailback spot. (Swift might not play at G-Day, as he’s recovering from some recent groin trouble.) Fans unfortunately won’t get a chance to see early enrollee Zamir White, the No. 1-ranked running back in the country, because he’s still rehabbing an ACL tear suffered last year in high school.

Generally, though, you can’t read too much into what you see at G-Day; quite often, the “stars” that shine the brightest in the intrasquad game don’t go on to make much of a mark that fall when the competition is real.

Remember the 2013 G-Day performance by junior college transfer receiver Jonathon Rumph, who caught 4 passes for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns? Fans were hailing the 6-foot-5, 208-pound player as a star in the making, but Rumph only appeared in five games that season.

And, the pass-happy 2017 G-Day game left quite a few fans impressed with Tyler Simmons, who caught 5 passes for 114 yards to lead the Red team, including a 70-yard scoring catch, and freshman J.J. Holloman, who made an impressive debut with a 42-yard touchdown catch. In the 15-game season that followed, Simmons caught a total of 3 passes for 26 yards, and Holloman caught only 1 pass for 7 yards.

Also, if you had judged Georgia’s running attack based on the 2017 G-Day game, you wouldn’t have been impressed. Partly, that was because Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were only nominally involved, but the offensive line gave up a lot of whistle sacks and opened few holes for the backs. Come the fall, the O-line played much better. 

As with this year, most of the fan interest at the 2017 game was on the quarterbacks, but the results were inconclusive. Established starter Jacob Eason got off to a rough start before coming on strong in the second half and wound up with more yards passing than Fromm. However, providing a clue to what would ensue after Eason got hurt during the season, Fromm looked remarkably poised and finished the game with the higher completion percentage.

That’s the thing about spring games: You can’t tell until months later whether what you saw really meant anything. Still, for hardcore fans, that doesn’t matter. It’s Georgia football. Enough said.

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