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Jeff Sentell/DawgNation
Georgia OL coach Sam Pittman has made an astronomical difference in UGA offensive line recruiting.

UGA recruiting: How the Bulldogs now build the O-line like never before

Want to attack every day with the latest UGA recruiting info? That’s what the Intel brings at least four days a week. The play sheet today calls for our annual report on what Kirby Smart and Sam Pittman have done to retool the offensive line at Georgia. It is striking. 

What does Kirby Smart do differently when it comes to recruiting at Georgia?

That remains a very popular question. DawgNation gets that from fans at games, Bulldog Club meetings, sponsor events and on social media.

For that, the usual emphasis is a focus on what takes place up front. Championship teams are built from the inside out. They must be physically imposing in the trenches. Elite units make the other side relent.

Jamaree Salyer-UGA football-Georgia football-Georgia recruiting
5-star OG Jamaree Salyer was the highest-rated prospect at his position in almost a generation. He signed with UGA as the nation’s No. 10 overall prospect in 2018. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

That’s why this blog now presents an annual study on what one specific area of the team has done under third-year coach Kirby Smart. The telling difference with UGA recruiting in this space continues to be the way this staff hordes every 4-star and 5-star OL they can shoehorn in under the NCAA’s 85-man scholarship limit.

Sam Pittman and Kirby Smart go after their guys like they are the last big piece of chicken at the picnic. They get that one and then try to make room for another.

That’s taking place at a rate that runs counter to the previous 15 years this century with UGA recruiting.

The new BIG trends on O-line recruiting for UGA football

The right prose could work here, but sometimes it is better to let the data hit the blocking sled with this topic. We’ll let the data carry the point so far that the discussion taps out.

Let’s start by scanning what the Bulldogs have done in OL recruiting year-by-year on those wonderful databases maintained and managed by 247Sports.

For the purposes of this study, we’ve culled the data from the 2002-2015 recruiting classes and then 2016-2018. Records are not available online to study Mark Richt’s first recruiting class in 2001.

  • During the 14 listed recruiting classes of the Mark Richt era, the program signed 12 Top 10 offensive line recruits on the 247Sports Composite.
  • Smart’s classes have signed nine such recruits in his first three cycles. (Keep in mind that Smart and his staff had barely two months to recruit his first class back in 2016.)
  • Sam Pittman and Smart have signed eight prospects which rated as Top 10 recruits at their position on the offensive line during just the 2017 and 2018 cycles.
  • From 2002-2015, the Bulldogs signed 22 total offensive line prospects with a rating of 4-stars or better on the 247Sports composite standard.
  • This staff has already signed nine OLs who had a composite rating of 4-stars or better since 2016. (We did count the signing of 4-star OT D’Antne Demery in 2017 even though he never enrolled.)
  • John Theus was the only 5-star OL recruit of the Mark Richt era. Georgia has already signed a trio of 5-stars in Cade Mays (2018), Jamaree Salyer (2018) and Isaiah Wilson (2017) so far with Smart.
  • The average offensive line signee under the previous staff was a 3.3-star recruit.
  • The average offensive line recruit under this staff is a 3.92-star recruit. That is boosted by a 4.1-star average per signee over Smart’s first two full recruiting cycles.
  • The Bulldogs signed 39 recruits with no more than a 3-star rating during the 14 years studied prior to Kirby Smart taking over the job.  That was an average of 2.8 per class. With Smart, the Bulldogs have signed only four of those recruits in his first three years.
  • Do you remember the 2011 “Dream Team” of elite recruits for the Bulldogs? When we examine that class we see that hyped-up batch of recruits included four OL signees with a 3-star rating. The top-rated OL in that class was 4-star OT Watts Dantzler. Dantzler rated as the nation’s No. 281 overall prospect.
  • The Bulldogs signed 11 guys at other positions which rated higher than the top OL in the class. It adds to the perception that OL recruiting was simply not the priority.

That’s a lot of data marching across the screen to convey the major point: This staff signs considerably higher-rated offensive linemen than the previous staff.

Quantity. Quality. The elite guys. Georgia has also signed a grand total of seven All-American offensive line prospects since 2016, too.

There is no comparison. In terms of O-line recruiting, the Bulldogs have gone from keeping up with conference foes to lapping everyone else in the SEC outside of Alabama.

The history of signing 3-star OLs at UGA 

There’s a common notion around tailgates and water coolers that the Bulldogs have always had the goods at skill positions like the QBs, RBs and WRs. Even the rival fan bases will grant them that.

Sam Pittman-UGA football-Georgia football-Georgia recruiting
To put it mildly, Sam Pittman has raised the standard for O-line recruiting at the University of Georgia. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

But what about the elite guys up front? Where are those marquee names in the NFL signing those big contracts?

There is merit to that. When Isaiah Wynn was drafted by New England in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, it reversed a trend. Wynn was the first UGA offensive lineman taken in the first round since George Foster in 2003. 

Cordy Glenn’s second-round selection in 2012 also stands out. Glenn was the only other Bulldog OL selected during the first three rounds of an NFL between Foster in 2003 and Wynn and 2017. Georgia only saw eight of its former OLs selected in any round from 2004-2017. That was an average of one Bulldog OL draft pick for every 1.75 years.

It must be stated that recruiting rankings are always inexact, but there seems to be a correlation between the type of recruits signed by the program. To put it simply, the Bulldogs were not signing the players seen by the recruiting industry as the nation’s elite at those positions.

A large chunk of those guys were the prospects who did not eventually rise up those NFL draft boards.

Georgia signed 63 offensive linemen under Mark Richt across the 14 full recruiting cycles studied for this report. The Bulldogs signed a total of 39 prospects with a 3-star rating or less. That’s 62 percent of the entire crop.

While the Bulldogs have seen 3-stars like David Andrews and Clint Boiling shine, those examples serve as waypoints. Andrews, both smart and tough, was a 3-star who rated No. 8 nationally at center in 2011.

He played well above that station and is already seen as one of the top Georgia OLs this century. The former undrafted free agent has now been a solid starter with the New England Patriots for several seasons.

Cade Mays-UGA football-UGA recruiting-Georgia football
Don’t let the No. 42 fool you. The Bulldogs had only signed one 5-star player like freshman OT Cade Mays before Sam Pittman and Kirby Smart came to town. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

The Matt Stafford/Knowshon Moreno signing class came with a quintet of 3-star OL signees. The Aaron Murray signing class in 2009 had just three total OL signees.

This data below charts a trend toward the 3-star recruit at Georgia from 2002-2015. While the 3-star recruit should still be seen as a prospect who can start multiple years for even an SEC team, there are still two higher grades of players above that recruiting rank for a reason.

While talent evaluation beyond recruiting rankings also plays a factor here, the industry does have a handle on the players most likely to excel on the college level.

Georgia OL signees over the years

Year 5-stars Top 10s 4-stars 3-stars 2-stars or less OL signees
2002 0 1 2 4 0 6
2003 0 1 2 4 1 7
2004 0 0 1 2 0 3
2005 0 0 0 1 0 1
2006 0 2 2 5 0 7
2007 0 1 2 4 1 7
2008 0 1 3 1 0 4
2009 0 2 2 1 0 3
2010 0 2 2 1 0 3
2011 0 0 1 4 0 5
2012 1 0 0 2 0 3
2013 0 1 2 2 1 5
2014 0 1 3 1 0 4
2015 0 0 1 4 0 5
2016 0 1 1 2 0 3
2017 1 4 3 1 0 5
2018 2 4 2 1 0 5

 

*-Sources: 247Sports Composite; 247Sports

Why recruiting elite O-line prospects matters every year

Florida State’s performance against Virginia Tech on Labor Day night is the latest example. The Seminoles did not play anything resembling winning football up front. Coaches don’t like to address recruiting rankings at all, but there is a correlation to be found here.

Virginia Tech had eight new defensive starters last night. The Hokies still came away with five sacks, 14 tackles for losses and stoned the FSU ground game save for one play.

It made me wonder if there was a recruiting reason for that.

Here’s how the Seminoles have recruited for their OL across the last four cycles:

  • 2015: 3 OL signees (4-stars: 1; 3-stars: 2)
  • 2016: 6 OL signees (4-stars: 4; 3-stars: 2)
  • 2017: 1 OL signee (3-star)
  • 2018: 3 OL signees (4-stars: 1; 3-stars: 2)

Bottom line: It seems like FSU signed what it hoped would be the bulk of its future starting lines in 2016, but the real eye-opener is that only two of those prospects started against Virginia Tech. 

FSU signed what it needed to build an elite starting OL during just one cycle across the last four years. It places real boom-or-bust pressure on that 2016 group. What happens if they get hurt? The Seminoles have only signed six 4-star OLs during the last four cycles. Georgia has signed a total of six 4-stars and a pair of 5-stars in just the last two years. That creates elite depth.

Georgia-Andrew Thomas -UGA
Georgia sophomore Andrew Thomas, another All-American in 2017, should now be seen as one of Georgia’s top overall players. (CURTIS COMPTON/AJC)

Willie Taggart’s program started a pair of 4-star OTs from 2016 against the Hokies, but the interior of the first-team line was manned by 3-star players that had spent an average of 4-plus years in the program.

FSU’s narrow margin for error on the OL has been compromised by injury and off-the-field issues. The Seminoles recruited signed 3 OLs or less in three of their past four recruiting cycles. That does not leave a lot of wiggle for when things like that happen in college football.

The ‘Noles also did not sign a top 300 offensive prospect per the 247Sports composite in their 2018 class.

FSU had 28 carries for 94 yards against Virginia Tech, but former 5-star RB Cam Akers gained 85 yards on one carry. That meant the Seminoles netted 9 yards for their other 27 carries.

That’s….well, that’s a lot of negative plays. And it all starts up front.

Look back at UGA recruiting over the years. That chart above reflects several seasons (2004, 2005, 2009, 2012) where the Bulldogs went light on OL signees. Looking back on it, the team usually didn’t field their best offensive lines 2-3 years after those lean years.

Big recruiting weekend up ahead for South Carolina

South Carolina is using this weekend as a big potential change agent for the future of its program. Zacch Pickens, the 5-star pledge for 2019, will be there. So will 4-star QB Ryan Hillinski from California.

Hillinski has been a Richard LeCounte-type recruiter for Carolina in the 2019 class. He rates as the nation’s No. 2 pro-style QB prospect and at No. 47 overall. When he signs, he will already rank as their No. 13 all-time recruit. 

He’s very good. Seen it and verified it up close.

This game offers the chance for the Gamecocks to make national strides with this class. Their 2019 group already ranks No. 16 nationally. There are eight commitments in that class that hold a 4-star rating.

If they beat Georgia, it will draw attention. A good group of crossover recruiting targets has already told DawgNation they will be in Columbia for that game:

  • Jammie Robinson/2019 4-star ATH/Lee County HS/Leesburg, Ga./Undecided
  • Jacolbe Cowan/2020 4-star/Providence Day School/Charlotte, NC/Undecided
  • Alex Huntley/2020 4-star DT/Hammond School/Columbia, SC/Undecided
  • Rico Powers/2020 4-star WR/Benedictine/Savannah, Ga./Undecided
  • (*-all ratings derived from the 247Sports composite)

If the Bulldogs win, then that result likely maintains the current momentum for the defending conference champions within the SEC East. Carolina has won a few true head-to-head battles with the Bulldogs (Zaccheus Pickens, Rick Sandidge, Jamyest Williams) over the years so it will be interesting.

I do find it interesting that UGA offensive line commit (Class of 2019) Warren McClendon Jr. tells me that he will not be taking an official visit to South Carolina for the Georgia game this weekend. McClendon does have just a little bit of a family connection.

That should be seen as a good sign for Bulldog fans that he is solidly committed to the program.

McClendon is one of the two 4-star commitments that the Bulldogs already have for 2019, too.

 

Miss any Intel? The DawgNation recruiting archive will get you up to speed just as fast as former Georgia All-American LB Roquan Smith found the ball after the snap.