The Georgia football program signed up all the players it possibly could for its 2020 class. That was the big headline for DawgNation at this time a week ago.
The 247Sports Composite ratings trumpeted the work of Kirby Smart and his staff of black-belt recruiters as the best in the land. That’s the second time that has happened in the last three cycles on that scale.
Rivals.com has given its own version of that honor to the Bulldogs for 2018, 2019 and 2020.
When the class was all signed and sealed, it prompted a lot of headlines. Rankings this and that. Where it class stands. The reports cards. Assessing the needs that were filled.
It is good content. Yet it does seem to fall in the realm of the same yearly assessment devices.
It led to this topic: How was this class different than the ones signed previously by Kirby Smart? What really stands out for a program that sticks every landing for every signing day?
Let’s start with a handful of quick things and then follow that up with some of the more compelling elements of this 2020 group. We could start with geography.
Jacob Eason signed with Georgia in the 2016 class, but that was more of retention recruit for that class. The previous staff had already built that pipeline out to Eason.
Georgia’s recruiting staff thrived on Pacific Standard Time for this cycle more so than ever before. The Bulldogs were able to sign a pair of All-Americans from California and also the No. 1 prospect from both Arizona and Nevada, too.
In years past, the Georgia classes had only reached out as far west to Oklahoma and Texas in the 2018 class. The Bulldogs didn’t just recruit well out-of-state this time, they signed up 10 future Bulldogs from a different time zone than Georgia in 2020.
What was truly different about this No. 1 class?
That heading above does not apply to how this class was different from the rest of the nation. That is a given by now with these Kirby Smart classes. This section will address how this year’s class was different than the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 classes that Smart has signed.
Let’s get those quick bullets out of the way first:
- The guy they didn’t have to sign to be No. 1: This was the class that finished No. 1 overall and …. did need to accept the letter of intent from 5-star RB Zachary Evans. Evans rates as the No. 1 RB in the land for 2020. Georgia didn’t have to sign him to still finish with the nation’s top class.
- The new highest-rated signees of the Smart era: The Bulldogs were able to sign the highest-rated players at these positions during Smart’s time in Athens: 1)DB and CB (5-star Kelee Ringo); 2) OT (5-star Broderick Jones); 3) DT (5-star Jalen Carter) and 4) C (4-star Sedrick Van Pran-Granger)
- Senior film now matters a great deal: This class validates what Smart said at SEC Media Days prior to the 2019 season. He felt that Georgia, along with Alabama in his time there, didn’t take into account a prospect’s senior season during the final evaluations for those players. It was a chief reason why the Bulldogs announced signings from 3-stars in OL Austin Blaske, DB Daran Branch, OL Cameron Kinnie, WR Ladd McConkey and OL Devin Willock. Don’t believe that? Consider for a second that Georgia waited until December of their senior years to offer all of those guys save for Willock. When Willock’s offer became committable in the week leading up to the early signing day, he quickly de-committed from Penn State and sought to join the next class in Athens.
- The “sudden change” class: Go back to Dec. 11. At that point, 4-star OT Joshua Braun had just de-committed. That came after Sam Pittman had moved on to Arkansas. The less-than-stellar SEC Championship game showing with LSU was still fresh, too. When Braun bolted the class, it meant Georgia had just 14 public members left in what would be the eventual 25-man class. Matt Luke needed to be hired and all of Pittman’s prized OL targets and commits needed to be re-recruited for his OL room in 2020. That’s 11 new faces out of those 25, not counting the re-recruitments of Broderick Jones, Chad Lindberg, Tate Ratledge and Sedrick Van Pran-Granger. If the aim here was to conjure a “wow” number, that figure could have dropped to 10 members of that 25. Truth be told, a few parents in this class expressed some anxiety about what had happened and what was about to happen next in Athens.
- The no-doubt “freaks” for 2020. Even for a Georgia class: The simplest way to convey this point is to think about the guys who would not make this reporter’s list of the bona fide “freak” athletes in this class. It pains us to say this, but the guy who boomed a 59-yard field goal in a game and has an NFL-level kickoff leg right now (Jared Zirkel) didn’t make the cut. Nor will Sedrick Van Pran-Granger and his brute strength. He won the bench press challenge at Under Armour All-American week and then won the “Pancake” award for the top OL in the game. 4-star WR Justin Robinson is a physical specimen in every sense of the term. Especially up close. Watching him elevate for a high point catch is special. That said, even he is not among of the most telling exclamation point athletes of this class.
Who are the real freaks? Let’s tick them off:
1) 5-star Kelee Ringo has elite skills and speed (4.36 laser in the 40) to play the cornerback position. He has the hips and fluid movement. Yet he packs it into a safety’s body at 6 feet, 2 inches and 205 pounds.
2) 5-star OT Broderick Jones moves like a TE and will strike any scout as one of the most fit and lean 300-pound offensive tackles they will ever see.
3) 5-star DT Jalen Carter is every bit the physical specimen and athlete Travon Walker was in the 2019 class. At6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he’s even played tight end for his Apopka High football team.
4) While 5-star ATH Darnell Washington is still raw, he is an explosive athlete with ball skills at 6 feet, 7 inches and 265 pounds. It will ultimately make him a matchup headache on every snap.
5) 4-star CB Jalen Kimber posted a 140.01 score at the Opening finals testing last July. That’s Nick Chubb and Nolan Smith territory there. The 6-foot Kimber paired up a laser 4.44 with a 4.02 pro agility shuttle and a 42-inch vertical leap.
6) Former 5-star RB Kendall Milton is up to 227 pounds in Athens. He can run a 4.59 laser in the 40 and should play this fall at 230. The young fella can use a rock for a pillow. That’s how chiseled he looked last night while the mid-years were introduced at halftime of the basketball game.
7) Did you see the viral post where 6-foot, 190-pound WR Jermaine Burton broad jumped the width of a backyard swimming pool from a running start? He doesn’t make this list for that. He doesn’t make the cut even for his 135.15 Opening rating. That was fueled by a 3.95 short shuttle and a 39-inch vertical. He’s on the freak list for his uncommon ball skills. I’m not sure if I’ve seen five high school receivers in 20-plus years track a ball in the air and come down with it the way he does.
8) Former 5-star OLB Mekhail Sherman was slowed by a tough knee injury that wiped out his junior season. Prior to that, he was clocking laser 40s in the 4.5 range at the Opening finals in 2018. He made the “Fastest Man” heats as a 225-pound linebacker. Watch his senior tape below. Sherman was still recovering from that knee injury, playing a different position and doing so at 80 to 85 percent of his full athleticism.
9) Georgia WR signee Arian Smith won the “Fastest Man” competition at the Under Armour All-American Game week and he’s timed at 10.3 seconds in the 100 meters as a high school junior. When he enrolls at Georgia, he will immediately become one of the fastest players in college football. He is also the nation’s No. 9 WR and No. 58 overall prospect for 2020. He thinks he can clock a 10.20 or lower this spring. Sheesh.
Georgia now signs about four or five players with the eye-opening athleticism these guys have every cycle. But they don’t sign eight guys quite like this and not even include guys like Robinson and Smith.
The 2018 class was filled with guys like Justin Fields, Jamaree Salyer and Zamir White. But I wouldn’t label a lot of the 5-stars in that class in the rare athlete category. Adam Anderson, Tyson Campbell, Fields and White would fit into the criteria of rare athlete with this 2020 group. But a lot of those guys (Brenton Cox, Cade Mays and Salyer) were just great football players.
Georgia football 2020 class: The big trends at work
There are a few more items which should strike DawgNation as decidedly different for this class.
1) The emphasis to reshape the OL and WR positions
Why: Georgia used 16 of its 25 scholarship in this class for the offensive side of the ball. Consider the way the 2019 season went for Georgia offensively and then let that marinate for a minute.
It is a clear tell Georgia feels it needs more playmakers for that side of the ball.
This will also reflect how the program feels it is at defensively for the 2020 season. The biggest changes here are the stark reconstruction of the OL and WR rooms. Georgia signed 12 players (7 on the OL, 5 at WR) in this class to restock the talent levels at those positions.
When one scans the team roster for next year, they will see that these new freshmen faces occupy 38 percent of Cortez Hankton’s room. That’s five out of 13 current scholarship slots. The number for Luke’s room currently sits at 43 percent. That will be seven of the team’s 16 offensive linemen.
Georgia will have at the most three receivers (Trey Blount, Demetris Robertson and Matt Landers) in 2020 who classify as a junior or a senior in eligibility. There are also only four veteran offensive linemen (Ben Cleveland, Justin Shaffer, Trey Hill and Salyer) who will classify as juniors or seniors.
Take a look at the players who will classify as a freshman or sophomore at those positions for 2020:
- OL: 12 out of 16
- WR: 10 out of 13
Those young guys are vastly talented, but that’s also a moment for DawgNation to reach for the Pepto prior to that SEC opener in Tuscaloosa.
2) The most overlooked but essential player in this class
If folks forego the obvious answer here, they might be thinking too hard.
That guy has to be 3-star Texas kicker Jared Zirkel. He has boomed a 59-yard field goal in an actual game and his chance to start in 2020 is as good of a chance as anyone in the class.
There’s no such thing as a Day 1 starter in Athens. Not given the depth that runs through the program, but Zirkel is a good bet to be a Day 10 starter in fall camp. Rodrigo “Hot Rod” Blankenship is on to the NFL, but Zirkel’s kickoff leg is one area where that drop-off won’t be major.
That whole part about adjusting to the pressure field goals in the SEC? That’s another story. Zirkel needs the reps there. But he does stand to be the most talented player at his position on the 2020 team.
There will also not be a returning player at his position with any real advantage over him in playing time, too.
3) New breed: Players who seem tailor-made for a different UGA offense
There were some late additions to the class who do fit more of what Todd Monken (new offensive coordinator) and new line coach (Matt Luke) like to see.
We started to see a trend emerge when January 2020 offers came out for OL Cameron Kinnie and WR Ladd McConkey. Those two players didn’t have offers before Luke and Monken arrived. Kinnie is a heady interior asset for the center and guard spot. He started both ways at Collins Hill for four seasons. That experience lends itself to a high football IQ. Kinnie also has a strong academic transcript. In due time, he will be able to handle all the calls and responsibilities that go along with playing center and guard in the SEC.
McConkey is the ideal new slot receiver build for the Monken scheme. McConkey is another Terry Godwin/Mecole Hardman Jr./Isaiah McKenzie type for this offense. He has that type of speed, sudden change of direction and certain hands. Dominick Blaylock was the only player with the same variety of skills who had a role in Georgia’s offense last season.
Colquitt County’s Daijun Edwards, the late 4-star signee, is a three-down RB who will excel in the passing game. He’s a tough inside runner, but his high school staff already classifies him as a steady receiver and an asset in pass protection. Edwards caught 22 passes as a freshman in the largest classification of Georgia high school football. He finished his career with another 27 catches for 408 yards as a senior when he was again featured in the Colquitt County passing game.
Early enrollee Carson Beck is a well-versed QB in all schemes and styles. He has the cognitive ability and arm talent to attack every area of the field. All-around WRs Jermaine Burton, Justin Robinson and Marcus Rosemy would be effective in any system, including a more diverse passing attack. Those three, along with freshman speedster Arian Smith, can come in and make plays like Blaylock and Pickens did in 2019.
The opinion here is that Georgia has never signed a class of receivers with this blend of athleticism, diverse skills, ratings and size in any one class. There are three top 100 receivers in this group. Georgia did not sign a pair of top 100 receivers in a class in this decade prior to Blaylock and Pickens in 2019.
In closing, there is also the enigma that is Washington. He is raw, but the 5-star ATH will be an extreme compliment to Pickens in the red zone. At least. Which secondary boasts an athlete to go up for balls with Pickens and then another special defender to shadow the 6-foot-7 Washington? He can make catches at heights approaching 11 feet in the air. Who will be able to cover him way up there?
4) Fathers and sons and the potential future team captains
Train up a child in the way he should go. That verse from Proverbs brings to mind the relationships between the fathers and sons of this class.
There are many strong fathers who have trained up their sons in the way they should grow. They have taken an active role in their son’s lives. Not just athletic careers. Academics have mattered. That degree will be prioritized at UGA. Community service has already mattered.
Those types in the breakout of this class are numerous. While sharing the personal stories of these young men, I’ve noticed more fathers who continue to make a difference. More so than in any class Smart has signed.
Teenage boys aren’t expected to flash true leadership qualities. It is rare when they do. It is harder to find a player who embodies that when they have been the best player on every team they’ve played for.
The 2020 examples here are too many to name. Those stories are vastly different from just being a helicopter dad. As an aside, I’ve noticed these fathers work to recruit other like-minded families to join what they saw was a special class forming at UGA.
How prevalent is that trend? There are no less than 10 members of this class who give off a future team captain vibe. That was a clear tell in covering their recruitments. That same feeling also seemed inherent in future Bulldogs like Lewis Cine, Nakobe Dean, Jake Fromm, Azeez Ojulari, Salyer, Nolan Smith, D’Andre Swift and Andrew Thomas at the high school level, too.
There’s a commonality there. These are just more good dudes and great young people in this class compared to previous years. With regard to that, there are strong parents (and grandparents) in the family picture in almost every one of those cases.
Accountability plus dependability seems to be the formula within the 2020 class. The talent is there, but that’s pretty much prerequisite with Smart at the helm.
The way that a lot of these young men have handled themselves on and off the field just seems different for this 2020 class. That is what really builds a championship-caliber team. Not stars.