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Jeff Sentell/Dawgnation
There was one recruiting area where Georgia was definitely still behind the LSU Tigers. Can you put your finger on which position that is?

Georgia football: The recruiting issue smack dab in the middle of the 27-point loss to LSU

The Georgia football team lost to LSU by 27 points in the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Saturday night. The DawgNation side of that stadium is probably hungover from that one.

While Georgia has been recruiting like aces over the last four cycles (average annual rank of No. 3 nationally) there was one specific area of the program that didn’t have the same octane as what LSU put on the field in that contest.

When it comes down to that, the game showed off a few areas of concern:

  • The Bulldogs must find more help for their future quarterbacks at wide receiver. The guys running routes for Joe Burrow were not the same guys running routes for Jake Fromm.
  • When Dominick Blaylock went down with a serious knee injury, it meant the Bulldogs were forced to line up without their No. 1 receiver from this season in Pickens (suspended for a half) plus the No. 2 receiver in Lawrence Cager (ankle surgery) and then the No. 3 receiver in Blaylock.
  • Those three first-year Bulldogs were essential this year to offset the loss of three receivers who moved on to the NFL, including two early entries. Georgia also dismissed Jeremiah Holloman from the program in June for a serious off-the-field issue. The loss of those top four receivers from a year ago (plus tight end Issac  Nauta) plus their three top 2019 receivers placed the program at a serious talent deficit trying to throw the ball against LSU.
  • Georgia is built to win games by chopping away at teams on the ground. That’s the foundation. When the receiver group doesn’t put the fear factor into defenses to worry about man coverage or stretching the field vertically, opponents can load the box to limit what the Bulldogs do best. The lack of playmakers on the outside saps away the strength of that rushing attack. 

When Kearis Jackson also left the game with another injury, it was worst-case scenario time. Jackson had started six games this season after returning from a wrist injury and had five catches for 79 yards on limited targets this fall.

What did Georgia have left to turn to until Pickens came back in the second half?

  • Demetris Robertson: A former 5-star receiver who has not played at that level since transferring to the program prior to the 2018 season. Robertson made all 26 of his career catches at Georgia this season. His four catches for 52 yards was second on the team in both categories against LSU. (Recruiting glance: Former 5-star. Robertson was the nation’s No. 1 receiver and No. 13 overall prospect in the 2016 class.)
  • Matt Landers: The redshirt sophomore came into the game with seven career catches for 80 yards. The 6-foot-5, 200-pounder has been in the program for three seasons and had a chance to make a couple of plays against LSU, but did not record a catch. (Recruiting glance: Former 3-star. Landers was the nation’s No. 98 receiver and No. 680 overall prospect in the 2017 class.)
  • Tyler Simmons: The senior made 14 of his 28 career catches this season. He had three catches for 40 yards against LSU. (Recruiting glance: Former 3-star. Simmons was the nation’s No. 65 WR and No. 383 overall prospect in 2016.)

This is not an indictment on those young men. Football is a “next man up” culture.

The most honest thing to say here would be that they are all capable of helping a team win games in the rugged SEC. They have all been in the program for at least two seasons.

Yet they were not the type of receiver LSU had on the field Saturday night against the best defense in the SEC. To keep up with a surging team like LSU, the Bulldogs needed to match what its opponent has put together both schematically and from a talent standpoint on offense.

Georgia has been a Colossus on the recruiting trail since Kirby Smart arrived, but it had not cleaned up at the receiver position. At least not compared to its other positions.

That’s a reason why Georgia could not keep up with LSU in the SEC championship. That’s an area to address on the recruiting trail moving forward.

Kirby Smart-Georgia football-Georgia recruiting
Kirby Smart and his Georgia staff plan to do more this off-season to replenish the overall talent and playmakers in the wide receiver room. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

Georgia football: What Kirby Smart said about those issues

Georgia coach Kirby Smart pointed to a few of those factors in his post-game press conference.

Smart was asked if Georgia was getting the most of the talent it has or if he felt it is a recruiting issue. Was it that Georgia needs to have more receivers in the program with the big-play ability that LSU has?

He had a pointed reply to a question about how Fromm’s numbers were better than Burrow’s during his first two years in Athens. Burrow’s stat line from 2018 is also in the same territory as Fromm’s 2019 season.

“First off, I would say what you just said,” Smart said in response to that question. “The first two years, Jake’s numbers were better. So the indicator of that was four wide receivers were on our sideline that were drafted that are playing in the NFL. So right now, I don’t know if we have four wide receivers that are going to be playing in the NFL at this time next year.”

“And the loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team. That’s my responsibility, right, to replace them. That’s my responsibility to replace them in recruiting, and we probably haven’t done a good enough job of that.”

“Now, we had two or three out different games of the year, so we’ve not had a consistent group out there. Went out and grabbed some transfers we thought would help. A lot of those things fall on it. People can point at Jake, they can point at [offensive coordinator James] Coley, they can point at me.”

“I understand that. But at the end of the day, it’s not about that. It’s what can we do to win each game individually? There’s a lot of plays they run that we run. You watch the tape closely, they run the exact same play we do. What’s the difference right now? They have a lot more success with it. They have guys getting open one-on-one and catching the ball.”

“I don’t know how many drops we had tonight, but I feel like we had to have had five or six that you could say should have probably been caught. And we would have been more explosive if that was the case. I don’t mean that in disrespect. If we had really good wideouts, we’re more explosive. I don’t know. One is on the bench in the first half, one is in a wheelchair, and two or three are in the NFL that came out early. That’s just tough.”

Georgia might have lined up some good wideouts against LSU for the duration of that contest. But they were not regarded elite when they signed with the Bulldogs coming out of high school.

Why did Jake Fromm’s numbers regress for the first time this year during his time at Georgia? He’s not a dual-threat QB so he has to win with his wideouts. Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman Jr. and Riley Ridley don’t get enough credit for how much they helped Fromm last season.

He’d didn’t have the same level of overall talent at receiver to attack SEC defenses with in 2019.

True for false: Georgia did not have the receivers LSU did 

Let’s take a minute to help kick the tires on the point Smart made after the SEC championship.

Here’s a quick look at the caliber of receivers that LSU put on the field against UGA with the SEC championship on the line.

Ja’Marr Chase: Chase is up for The Fred Biletnikoff Award for the top receiver in college football. He had three catches for 41 yards and a touchdown against UGA. It was his 18th touchdown catch of the season. Georgia’s entire receiving core now has 24 touchdowns in all of 2019. (Recruiting glance: Chase was the nation’s No. 15 WR and No. 84 overall prospect in 2018.)

Jordan Jefferson: The former 3-star recruit has 88 catches this year for 1,207 yards and 14 touchdowns. Georgia’s top three receivers only have 100 catches and 16 touchdowns this year. He had seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs. (Recruiting glance: No. 308 WR and No. 2164 overall prospect.)

Terrace Marshall Jr: The sophomore had five catches for 89 yards and two TDs. The former 5-star now has 10 touchdown catches this year. (Recruiting glance: Nation’s No. 3 WR and No. 15 overall.)

The Georgia fan who is looking to point fingers at the loss will name the names of those receivers who could not match the plays that the LSU receivers made on Saturday night. The Dawgnation reader who looks at the problem proactively will know what Georgia has and what it hopes to add.

With that, there’s a way to tactfully further examine what the recruiting rankings say about those matters.

Answering the questions about the WR position

There are times when the recruiting trail doesn’t have all the answers. Those moments when one can’t just look at rankings and neatly identify problems and potential fixes.

This is not one of those times. The work that Georgia might have left on the table (or not restocked) while recruiting the receiver position since 2016 came back to bite the program in 2019.

Let’s start by teeing up that point Smart made after that 27-point loss to LSU. It was the one where he took ownership of the position that has been in flux for Georgia all season long. It was a concern in the spring, the preseason and then after Georgia’s most meaningful game of the 2019 season.

Here’s Smart again:

“So right now, I don’t know if we have four wide receivers that are going to be playing in the NFL at this time next year.”

“And the loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team. That’s my responsibility, right, to replace them. That’s my responsibility to replace them in recruiting, and we probably haven’t done a good enough job of that.”

He was exactly right. It may have been indirectly calling out a part of his team that had not stacked up the talent and depth that other positions currently enjoy, but he wasn’t embellishing.

Check out the ratings of the prospects Georgia has signed at the receiver position (ratings culled from the 247Sports Composite ratings) since Smart arrived in 2016:

  • 2016 class: No. 1 ATH (now in NFL); No. 25 WR (now a TE at UGA); No. 47 WR (now in NFL); No. 4 JUCO WR (now in NFL); No. 65 WR (a senior at UGA).

Summary: 1 top 50 overall recruit to play WR; 0 top 100 overall recruits to play WR; 0 top 150 overall recruits to play WR; 1 player left in the program. 

  • 2017 class: No. 18 WR (now dismissed from team); No. 21 WR (now a starting DB); No. 48 WR (redshirted in 2019); No. 98 WR (a redshirt sophomore) and No. 25 JUCO WR (did not make an NFL roster).

Summary: 2 top 25 WRs; 0 top 50 players to play WR; 0 top 100 players to play WR;  1 top 150 overall player to play WR; 1 redshirt; 1 player who was on the field at WR against LSU. 

  • 2018 class: No. 1 WR from the 2016 class via transfer; No. 23 WR (now a redshirt freshman); No. 37 WR (also a redshirt freshman who was injured most of 2019).

Summary: 1 top 25 WR; 1 top 50 overall signee to play WR; 0 top 100 players to play WR; 1 top 150 overall signee to play WR; 2 players who took the field against LSU. 

The quick bottom lines:

  • Top 50 overall signees (total): 2
  • Top 100 overall signees (total): 0
  • Top 150 overall signees (total):  2
  • Top 50, 100 or 150 overall signees still on the team in 2019: 2 (of 4 signees since 2016)
  • Overall WR signees still at WR for Georgia 2019: 6 (of 13 signees since 2019)

There are a lot of numbers presented here which should jump out to a reader or even an analyst.  The biggest one seems like this: Georgia only had four receivers left from its first three classes under Smart see action playing that position against LSU.

The number dropped to three after Jackson left the game.

As a means of comparison, LSU had signed five receivers which rated among the nation’s top 150 overall prospects from 2016-2019. Alabama has signed six of those elite weapons for their vertical passing game, including four in the 2017 class alone.

Clemson signed six of those guys during the same span. Ohio State has brought seven top 150 receivers like that into its program and has four more committed in its 2020 class. Oklahoma brought in five of those same elite top 150 overall prospects to play receiver, including a trio of top 75 wideouts in 2019.

Does that correlate to explosive offensive plays? Here’s how each of those programs ranks nationally in total offense for this season:

  1. *LSU (Signed five top 150 WRs since 2016) — 554.4 yards per game
  2. *Oklahoma (Signed five top 150 WRs since 2016) — 554.2 yards per game
  3. *Clemson (Signed six top 150 WRs since 2016) — 547.7 yards per game
  4. UCF — 536.6 yards per game
  5. *Ohio State (Signed seven top 150 WRs since 2016) — 531.0 yards per game
  6. Washington State — 516.8 yards per game
  7. Alabama (Signed six top 150 WRs since 2016) — 513.3 yards per game

— Indicates a BCS playoff qualifier

The assumption here is that if Georgia had more guys like that playing receiver, then it would have won more of those matchups in man coverage in 2019.

Why? Well, the two players it did have on the field in 2019 that had those types of rankings coming out of high school (Blaylock and Pickens) proved to be two of the team’s most effective receivers this season.

 

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Georgia recruiting: Filling the elite playmaker void at WR

Georgia made progress to remedy that in its 2019 class by breaking a specific drought in WR recruiting that somehow dated all the way to 2009. (Reminder: Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin were rated as athletes and not receivers coming out of high school.)

When Marlon Brown signed with the Bulldogs in that cycle, it would take another 10 years before Georgia signed another prospect who rated as a top 5 prospect at that receiver position.

Until 2019. That’s when the Bulldog staff broke the cycle on all of that. Two times.

  • 2019 class: 3-star graduate transfer; No. 4 WR; No. 5 WR; No. 9 ATH (redshirted in 2019).

Summary: 2 top 5 WRs; 2 top 50 overall players to play WR

Those two top 50 overall players that Georgia signed in 2019 just so happened to be the No. 1 (Pickens) and No. 3 (Blaylock) most productive receivers at UGA this season. That transfer, Lawrence Cager, was the No. 2 receiver at least as far as production goes. Cager would’ve likely remained the most productive receiver for all of 2019 had he not been plagued by a series of injuries.

The feeling here is that Georgia doesn’t beat Florida this season without Cager. He was reliable and dependable. Maybe he wasn’t the speed demon, but he was going to be where he was supposed to be and do what he was supposed to do.

That trend extends into the 2020 cycle, too. The Bulldogs have a commitment from another elite receiver leading the class and have targeted two more breath-taking potential signees to finish out 2020.

  • 2020 class: Nation’s No. 6 WR and No. 40 overall prospect in Florida native Marcus Rosemy; Nation’s No. 48 WR and No. 293 overall prospect with in-state prospect Justin Robinson.

Summary: 1 top 10 WR;1 top 50 overall player to play WR

If that wasn’t enough of a positive direction, Georgia is now fighting hard to flip an LSU commit and adding at least one true burner from Florida, too.

Check out the current rankings of the three biggest remaining targets:

  • 4-star WR Jermaine Burton/No. 8 WR/No. 52 overall/Calabasas HS/Calabasas, Calif.
  • 4-star WR Arian Smith/No. 14 WR/No. 73 overall/Lakeland HS/Lakeland, Fla.
  • 4-star WR Marcus Fleming/No. 42 WR/No. 255 overall/Northwestern/Miami, Fla.

Fleming ran a 10.43 in the 100 meters this spring. Smith went even faster than that at 10.30 and those two are two pure football players. Not just track guys. Arian Smith will even be in town this weekend on his long-awaited official visit.

He’s down to Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Smith announced on Tuesday through this Twitter account that he will also now sign in December. Wherever he goes, he wants to run track in college. Georgia’s national championship track program is another draw here, along with Smith’s friend Matthew Bolling.

If Burton and Smith sign to join Rosemy and Robinson, that certainly boosts the playmaking potential at WR for 2020. That quartet, paired with Blaylock and Pickens plus another year from Robertson will certainly help offset the depth and elite talent issues that the receiver group had in 2019.

Georgia had only signed two top 100 prospects (Mecole Hardman and Demetris Robertson) to play receiver during Smart’s first three recruiting cycles. It could potentially boost that number up to seven with the 2019 and 2020 classes.

The feat of adding Burton and Smith to a room that already includes Blaylock and Pickens would be make defensive coordinators pay if they again try to dare Georgia to beat them consistently down the field in man coverage. That will help keep those safeties from camping down in the box, too.

The final point here is made by the chart below. While the number of players Georgia has signed since 2016 at the receiver position is greater than a lot of other areas on the team, those players weren’t still on the team.

The receiver position also calls for three wideouts on the field for a lot of personnel packages that the Bulldog offense prefers to use in general and on obvious passing downs. The 2019 roster was not well-equipped at the WR spot after injuries affected the elite players in that room over the course of the season.

Top 150 players Georgia has signed since 2016

(by position per the 247Sports composite ratings)

  • ILB: 6
  • OLB: 6
  • WR: 5 (Only three of those Bulldogs are still with the team)
  • OT: 4
  • OG: 4
  • S: 4
  • CB: 3
  • DT: 3
  • QB: 3
  • RB: 3
  • TE: 2
  • DE: 1
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