Stellar recruiting, deft damage control allow Georgia Bulldogs to keep pace with Alabama

Georgia football-Towers Take-Georgia Bulldogs keep pace with Alabama in recruiting-Georgia Bulldogs-Alabama Crimson tide
Nakobe Dean rates as the nation's No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

ATHENS — Kirby Smart will have to wait a little while longer before ruling the college football world. He came up just a little short of doing that on Wednesday.

OK, that might be a slight overstatement, but the Georgia Bulldogs’ had another very, very good day in recruiting. Not quite as good as Alabama, granted, and many will point that out. But when it comes to the the competition these two programs are currently waging on the recruiting trail and on the football field, it’s really splitting hairs when one talks about the difference in landing the nation’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked recruiting classes. Let’s just say, the Bulldogs didn’t lose any ground to the Crimson Terror on Wednesday. Or anybody else.

“It was a good day for us; we got a lot of good Bulldogs,” Smart said following Georgia’s Sugar Bowl practice Wednesday evening. “We have few spots left and we’ve still got some targets out there that we want to go after. I think the totality of the class is, it’s a good balance.”

Indeed, the 2019 recruiting battle isn’t over just yet. There remains the traditional National Signing Day in February. Wednesday represented the second year of the Early Signing Day, and based on the latest haul, the Bulldogs seem to have taken to it pretty well. After landing the nation’s No. 1-ranked class last year, Georgia has gone 6, 3, and 2 under Smart’s recruiting watch. Quibble over the points system they use to quantify those rankings if you must but, bottom line, the Bulldogs haven’t fallen behind anybody when it comes to talent acquisition. So, again, there were a bunch of 5-stars in this batch, and Georgia landed pretty much everybody it wanted, with only a plus-one/minus-one tradeoff keeping it from being a perfect day.

The Bulldogs didn’t get the running back they coveted, and that one hurt. Trey Sanders, the No. 1 running back in America per 247Sports, chose the Crimson Tide over Georgia. What made that particularly painful for the Bulldogs is they shifted priorities late to go to all-in for Sanders while moving away from Noah Cain, Sanders’ IMG Academy teammate. Cain signed with Penn State on Wednesday and Bama closed the deal on Sanders, for whom it had led pretty much the whole way.

But you can’t win them all, and the victories Georgia did celebrate on Wednesday certainly were more meaningful than landing yet another No. 1-rated running back. The Bulldogs ought to muddle through somehow with D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, James Cook and Zamir White still in the backfield next year, and they signed another 4-star runner as it was in Kenny McIntosh of Fort Lauderdale. At the risk of downplaying any loss in recruiting, the SEC’s leading rushing team should live to run the ball again next year.

Otherwise, the Bulldogs were pretty much on target everywhere else. By securing late in the day the nation’s No. 1-ranked inside linebacker in Nakobe Dean of Horn Lake, Miss., signing the No. 1 overall player in America in defensive end/linebacker Nolan Smith first thing in the morning, and landing six highly-rated defensive linemen in between, it was a red-letter day as far Georgia in achieving the recruiting end game to get what one wants/needs. Based on the outcomes of the last two on-field run-ins with the “Enemy in Crimson,” it’s on the defensive side where the Bulldogs are pressed to get better. And they did that.

“You can obviously see we had to go after some defensive linemen, the good big-bodies types, and we were pleased to get that done,” Smart said. “There are areas we’ve still got to work on, probably defensive back, receivers and another offensive lineman. So, those are things to add to this class to make to this class but we’re excited about what we have.”

Keep in mind, Smart and his staff did this while weathering a rather significant 11th hour breach of security. The first day of the quiet period for recruiting on Monday was the day and time that Justin Fields and his family chose to reveal to the world his intention to transfer from Georgia. That’s dastardly timing in terms of recruiting and had the potential to undo a lot of the good work that had been done to build the 2019 class. Yet the Bulldogs managed to keep it together and made sure one negative development didn’t lead to others.

Highlighting Wednesday’s real-life drama was what has become a signature move for Smart — the signing day flip. Seemingly out of nowhere, Georgia managed to get 4-star prospect Dwan Mathis, a longtime Ohio State commitment out of Detroit, to sign instead with the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound quarterback plans to early-enroll in January, which was a paramount requirement given Georgia’s sudden predicament at that position.

Making the move exquisite is the potential for it to effectively become a trade between the Bulldogs and Ohio State. The Buckeyes are one of the favorites to land Georgia’s disenchanted 5-star quarterback, so it could end up as a swap. No one’s going to argue at this stage that a raw prospect such as Mathis represents even-swap for a significantly-seasoned former Top 5 player in America. But in the context of these developments, Mathis is exactly what the Bulldogs need — a young quarterback who is coming in specifically as a backup with the expressed intention of learning everything he possibly can about playing the position from Jake Fromm and Georgia’s offensive brain trust.

It’s unclear exactly when the Bulldogs’ interest in Mathis was rekindled, but they offered him a scholarship on Sunday. An extended period of time that passed between Mathis attending a UGA camp the summer before his junior season and Mathis making the decision to sign with the Bulldogs rather than Ohio State on Wednesday.

“We didn’t stay in communication with him the whole time from that period of time until finding out Justin was leaving,” Smart said. “So there was a period of time there where there wasn’t communication. But it did fire back up quickly. To be honest, there’s been a lot of communication with a lot of quarterbacks across the country when you talk about the University of Georgia and the potential of being the only scholarship guy besides Jake Fromm.”

Late in the day Wednesday, the Bulldogs also reconnected with former walkon Stetson Bennett. They’re bringing him back on scholarship eight months after he transferred to Jones (Miss.) Community College because he didn’t have one. Meanwhile, a third quarterback prospect, 4-star John Rhys Plumlee of Hattiesburg, Miss., appears to be receptive to accepting Georgia’s offer to blueshirt until he can work out all his professional baseball options in late spring.

In other loose ends, Tyrique Stevenson, a high 4-star-rated cornerback from Miami, was expected to have signed with the Bulldogs on Wednesday but won’t announce his decision until Jan. 5 when he plays in the All-American Bowl. Meanwhile, 5-star wide receiver Jadon Haselwood conceivably could do the same, though that seems increasingly unlikely.

Regardless, the Bulldogs recovered impressively from what could have been some disastrous developments. Now I find myself almost rooting for Fields to end up at Ohio State. Then there would be a distinct possibility next year that three great Peach State quarterbacks will somehow all meet in the College Football playoffs in Georgia’s Fromm, Ohio State’s Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

Of course, the Bulldogs will likely have to get by Bama for that to happen. But nothing happened in recruiting this week that should make that any more challenging than it has been.

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