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Brant Sanderlin/AJC
Kirby Smart has his eyes on several key areas to address in recruiting for the future of Georgia's football program.

Sentell’s Intel: Recruiting season shows help is on the way in core areas

Georgia is 3-0. That’s the main thing.

But the Bulldogs don’t quite have the personnel that Kirby Smart wants to eventually line up during SEC play.

That’s also the main thing that should be noted. The things that Smart harps on after practices during his weekly sessions with the media are being addressed on the recruiting trail.

This year’s team has holes. The Bulldogs are calling on unorthodox pieces (return specialist Isaiah McKenzie, graduate seniors Tyler Catalina and Maurice Smith) to fill the holes where there is a glaring lack of personnel on the roster.

We’ll take a look at a few core areas and see what the staff is doing (or in most cases already has done) to fix a few critical areas:

1. Size and playmaking ability at receiver

Needs analysis: Every medium (play-by-play, network analysts, the team’s flagship play-by-play team) makes note of the fact that Georgia’s receivers are not feared. Missouri played with its entire defense in the box against the Bulldogs, daring the offense to take a shot downfield. McKenzie is no doubt a treat to watch, but no one ever expects him to be a No. 1 receiver for an SEC contender given his size.

Webb is Georgia's highest-rated commitment at receiver so far in 2017. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Webb is Georgia’s highest-rated commitment at receiver so far in 2017. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

What’s being done about it: When’s the last time you took a trip to an amusement park? Did you notice those rides that try to steer the little folks away from the biggest thrill rides? That’s what Georgia has done with its receiver recruiting. It appears the Bulldogs are no longer interested in the slight slot-receiver types. The program clearly has drawn a line at the 6-foot-2 mark. Georgia has commitments from 4-star receivers Trey Blount and Mark Webb Jr. Both of those guys are at least that tall. Blount is about 185 pounds. Webb is about 15 to 20 pounds heavier than that. Both are regarded as 4-star recruits and are strong all-around talents (size, speed, hands, blocking ability) at the position.

Matt Landers, a 3-star receiver from South Florida, is an example of the elite size the program is after these days. Georgia targeted the 6-5 Landers before the rest of the big schools in Florida. Landers is raw but has major upside. He didn’t start playing football until his sophomore season in high school.

Still need to get: Georgia probably can’t get too big of an infusion of talent at this position going forward to aid in the development of freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The two big names left on the board are Nico Collins (Clay-Chalkville/Pinson, Ala.) and Jeremiah Holloman (Newton/Covington, Ga.) going forward. Look for the Bulldogs to sign five receivers this year, and these last two names should be seen as priorities.

Holloman would be a true deep threat with clear stretch-the-field speed and elite athleticism and ball skills. He is one of the most explosive athletes in the nation this cycle. Holloman is significantly better than his rank at No. 23 overall in the country suggests. He will enroll early, and the Bulldogs appear to be in good-to-great shape here.

Collins, who’s at least 6-5, has been an All-State performer on one of the top teams in Alabama for the last three seasons. Georgia will have to fend off Alabama and Michigan, but if Collins signs, he would be the top-rated receiver in this year’s class at No. 13 overall.

2. Bigger bodies on the OL

Needs analysis: This one won’t take up a lot of time. Georgia should get a bigger push up front to clear the way for one of the nation’s top tailbacks (Nick Chubb) to do more than just fight to get to the line of scrimmage on most downs running between the tackles.

Andrew Thomas has been told by UGA offensive line coach Sam Pittman that he has a chance to come in and play right away. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Andrew Thomas has been told by UGA offensive line coach Sam Pittman that he has a chance to come in and play right away. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

Georgia has not cleared the way for Chubb and Sony Michel up front, but it also has allowed 9 sacks through three games. Some of the credit for that might go to the competition at quarterback. But those 9 sacks are tied with Auburn and Kentucky for the most in the SEC so far in 2016.

What’s being done about it: Plenty. Smart said on National Signing Day in February that offensive tackle was the one core need the program didn’t address with its 2016 class. That’s why the early commitments from 4-star offensive tackles D’Antne Demery (6-6, 320) and Andrew Thomas (6-5, 325) are on the way in the Class of 2017. Junior offensive tackle Max Wray (6-6, 285) still is growing. Each one of those talents — plus 2019 commitment Luke Griffin (6-5, 275) — have the athleticism and length to be seen as bona fide offensive tackles in the SEC.

The other mantra of bigger bodies overall also has been addressed at guard. Georgia has an imposing duo on the way from Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood. Netori Johnson is the program’s highest-rated offensive lineman in this year’s class. He’s rated as the nation’s No. 6 overall prospect at guard and at No. 90 overall. The 6-4, 340-pounder once was committed to Alabama. Prep teammate Justin Shaffer (6-5, 350) also will help change the way the Bulldogs look up front. The 3-star recruit is rated as the nation’s No. 20 offensive guard this year.

The current starters at guard (Lamont Galliard and Isaiah Wynn) are at least a couple inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than those two guys.

Still need to get: Catalina’s ability to play right away shows the Bulldogs don’t have a lot of veteran options at the position. Do the Bulldogs take another junior college option at offensive tackle for another turnkey solution at the position? If so, it looks like Badara Traore from ASA College in New York would be the likely option. The 6-8 Traore recently listed Georgia in his top-5 schools, and he’s rated as the nation’s No. 2 offensive tackle in the junior college ranks.

Pace Academy junior Jamaree Salyer (6-4, 327) also must be mentioned here. He could play at center or guard in the SEC, and he’s a definite mauler. The 5-star recruit has Sunday potential, and he’s the top overall offensive lineman the Bulldogs are recruiting. He’s the nation’s No. 1 guard and No. 12 overall prospect for 2018.

3. Kicker

Needs analysis: This will be a subject of much debate during the coming season if the Bulldogs do not get increased production.

Georgia’s best options are a pair of preferred walk-ons in Rodrigo Blankenship and William Hamm. Hamm wasn’t even on the team last year, but he beat out a U.S. Army All-American in Blankenship for the field-goal and extra-point duties.

Hamm has struggled this season, making 3 of 7 attempts including a painful 23-yard effort against Missouri. He’s yet to convert a field goal from outside 30 yards this season.

What’s being done about it: Competition and more competition. Georgia also welcomed another preferred walk-on in Mitchell Wasson (Lassiter/ Marietta, Ga.) this fall, but he hasn’t been able to make it a three-man competition.

Still need to get: Smart told Wasson during his recruitment this spring that he has a clear policy regarding kickers and scholarships. He feels it is in the best interest of the program to recruit highly rated kickers but will only offer those prospects preferred walk-on position. Those players then can earn a scholarship by winning the job in fall camp and also performing well in games.

Georgia will have to find a lot of Billy Bennetts over the years to make sure it has a championship-level kicker at this position going forward. Or Smart will have to rethink his position and award a scholarship to one of the nation’s top-rated kickers every four years.

He did address that policy in Monday’s press session. Smart said that he would offer the right “difference maker” at kicker a scholarship in the future.

4. All-America Tailbacks

Needs analysis: The bulk of the production in the running game is coming from juniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. No one expects either of the two to be back next season. The Bulldogs have a pair of impressive freshman tailbacks on the roster in Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield.

Swift is rated as the nation's No. 4 running back prospect for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Swift is rated as the nation’s No. 4 running back prospect for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

That wasn’t going to stop Georgia from wooing at least two highly regarded tailbacks in the Class of 2017.

What’s being done about it: Georgia has more than addressed its needs in All-Americans Toneil Carter (Langham Creek/Houston) and D’Andre Swift (St. Joseph’s Prep/Philadelphia) for the Class of 2017.

Still need to get: Though the Bulldogs have met their needs at this position for this class, I don’t expect the program to relent on its push to also sign Cam Akers (Clinton/Clinton, Miss.) this cycle. Akers is rated as the nation’s No. 2 tailback for this cycle. If the Bulldogs were to earn a commitment from Akers, he would be the highest-rated overall prospect in the Class of 2017 at Georgia. The 5-11, 215-pounder is rated as the nation’s No. 8 overall recruit for 2017.

Swift rates as the nation’s No. 4 RB and at No. 37 overall. Carter is regarded as the nation’s No. 7 RB and is ranked as the 116th-best overall player this year.

The 2018 wish list would begin and end with 5-star tailback Zamir White out of North Carolina. I won’t soft-sell his worth. The 6-1, 210-pounder is the best prospect at tailback the Bulldogs have recruited since Todd Gurley.

5. Safety

Needs analysis: We’d be remiss to take that extended look at running back and not address the same concerns at safety. Georgia has gotten incredible production during the last three years from Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders, but Mauger will exhaust his eligibility with this season. Sanders, a junior, could be a guy that takes a long look at the NFL after a big season.

Maurice Smith also transferred from Alabama this fall and has garnered most of the first-team reps at safety in 2016. What’s left in the cupboard? Well, Kirby Choates made the initial two-deep at safety, but he also was involved in that crucial special-teams play that resulted in a targeting penalty on Georgia and his ejection from the Missouri game.

Richard LeCounte III of Liberty County High School is the nation's top-rated safety for 2017. (Ryon Horne / rhorne@ajc.com)
Richard LeCounte III of Liberty County High School is the nation’s top-rated safety for 2017. (Ryon Horne/ rhorne@ajc.com)

What’s being done about it: The Bulldogs have addressed this glaring need in the best possible way. Five-star safety Richard LeCounte III (Liberty County/Hinesville, Ga.) is the team’s highest-rated commitment for the Class of 2017 up to this point. He’s rated as the nation’s No. 1 safety for the Class of 2017 and has established himself as one of the core leaders for this class.

LeCounte has it all: freak athleticism, competitiveness, instincts, playmaking ability, range, short-space quickness and tenacity. If pressed to find something, the only thing most scouts might say is that he’s only about 5-11 and 180 pounds. He could be taller and bigger, but he’s as close of a player parallel to future NFL Hall of Fame player Ed Reed as any scout will find in the high school ranks.

LeCounte also will arrive early in January and should immediately challenge to crack the two-deep at either safety spot. That’s a strong projection, but he really is that good.

Still need to get: LeCounte is the nation’s No. 1 safety, but Georgia still appears to be in a good position with 4-star DeAngelo Gibbs at safety. Gibbs (Grayson/Loganville, Ga.) is rated as the nation’s No. 3 safety for 2017, and he also could be an impact SEC player at receiver or cornerback.

Gibbs will enroll early, and he carries a lot of the same scouting positives as LeCounte. Yet the 6-2, 205-pounder also has elite size to play the position, too. Gibbs is one of the most important remaining recruits for Georgia going forward this year.

6. Pass rush

Needs analysis: The stats do not lie. Georgia has not gotten a lot of volume in the sack department this season or in previous years. The Bulldogs only have 3 sacks so far in 2016. That’s the second-lowest total in the SEC.

Florida, in comparison, already has 16 sacks.

What’s being done about it: This is another area in which Georgia quickly has recognized a glaring need and went about addressing it early on the recruiting trail. Defensive end Robert Beal (IMG Academy/Bradenton, Fla.) will be more of an outside linebacker at Georgia in the program’s odd front.

Beal will definitely help Georgia's pass rush during his time in Athens. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Beal definitely will help Georgia’s pass rush during his time in Athens. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

Beal should be an early pass-rush specialist at Georgia, and he will enroll early. The Norcross transfer has drawn a lot of comparisons to junior Lorenzo Carter so far in his prep career. Beal also is the program’s second highest-rated commitment so far for 2017. The 6-3, 230-pounder is ranked as the nation’s No. 3 weakside defensive end and No. 38 overall prospect in the 2017 class.

Still need to get: Malik Herring (Mary Persons/Forsyth, Ga.) would be the definite name to know. The 4-star prospect is rated as the nation’s No. 5 strongside defensive end this year. He’s going to need some time to sharpen his all-around game at the college level, but his size (6-4, 265) and pass-rush ability will allow him to see the field early.

He’s rated as the nation’s No. 97 player overall, and Georgia should be able to hold off Alabama and Clemson in the race for Herring.

 

NOTE: We also could cover linebacker, but that would take an entire blog post. Georgia only signed one inside linebacker in its Class of 2016, so look for the Bulldogs to fill definite needs by signing at least three true inside linebackers and up to six total linebackers in 2017.

Smart & Co. have 16 commitments for this cycle. Expect to see at least five more slots come from the linebacker spot between now and National Signing Day.

Follow Jeff Sentell on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.

 

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