Picking an All-Kirby Smart team means selecting among a group of very elite players.
Let’s face it, when a coach recruits at the level Smart has done at Georgia, narrowing down the best of the best involves making pretty subjective decisions at some positions.
That point was driven home this past week when some friends and I discussed who we’d name to our all-Kirby teams. While the past couple of seasons might have made picking a No. 1 quarterback easy, it’s much tougher deciding between receivers or linebackers who have played for Smart in Athens.
You have to decide: Is the criteria going to be their entire career, or just their time at Georgia, and can one spectacular season (or even one unforgettable play) earn a spot?
Not wanting to have to consider players like Justin Fields, who excelled after they left UGA, I limited it just to time playing for Smart. And, to make it even trickier, I decided to limit the candidates to those who were recruited and signed by Smart, eliminating such early favorites as Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin, who were holdovers from the Mark Richt era.
That made it particularly tough at certain positions. At the other extreme, as Helen Castronis noted, you had to resist the temptation just to list the starters from the back-to-back national championship teams.
Still, Owen Scott called it a “fun exercise!” and Darrell Huckaby said: “Wow, what a pleasant thing to contemplate!”
I also decided not to limit the choices to 11 spots each for the offense and defense, acknowledging that formations involving three or more receivers, or wrinkles such as frequent use of the nickel or star position on defense, required more flexibility.
In the end, some of the positions actually produced consensus picks among the Dawgs fans I queried, including the first choice, as we begin with the offense. …
QUARTERBACK: Everyone offering recommendations named Stetson Bennett as the first-string QB on the all-Kirby team. That’s what a Hollywood-style story resulting in being named the MVP in four playoff games on the way to two natties will get you. I liked the way Darrell summed it up: “I would not only name Stetson to my All-Kirby team — I would argue that he is the most accomplished Georgia QB of all time. No one else, on any team, has ever been named MVP of the Orange Bowl, National Championship Game, SEC Championship Game, Peach Bowl and another natty in succession, helping claim two national championships in the process. And I have watched all of the above games multiple times this off-season, and if you didn’t have the ‘walk-on, third-stringer yada, yada, yada’ narrative and just watched him play, the dude could really ball. So, yeah. I’d choose Steston for sure.” Second team choice was Jake Fromm.
Now, on to the rest of the offense.
RUNNING BACKS: Since Georgia frequently has two backs behind the QB, and alternates them frequently, I went with a pair of co-starters: D’Andre Swift and Zamir White. A key player on Georgia teams that won 11 or more games three straight seasons, three straight SEC Eastern Division titles and played in three straight New Year’s Six Bowl games (2018 Rose, 2019 Sugar, 2020 Sugar), Swift finished with 2,885 rushing yards for his career, good for seventh place on UGA’s all-time list, and had two 1,000-yard seasons running the ball. White, meanwhile, ranks 15th on UGA’s career rushing list with 2,043 yards and had a team-high 84 yards on 13 carries in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game vs. Alabama, scoring the first TD in third quarter. The second teamers: James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, both of whom became key receivers for the Dawgs, as well as having success running the ball.
WIDE RECEIVERS: George Pickens, Ladd McConkey and Mecole Hardman. I went with three, since the Dawgs frequently have at least that many on the field with the two wideouts and the slot receiver. All three achieved the status of being the “go-to” guy when you absolutely need a big play, and McConkey, thankfully, has another season to play for the Dawgs. Second teamers are Javon Wims, Riley Ridley and Kearis Jackson. (I didn’t give any consideration to Jermaine Burton and Adonai Mitchell, both of whom transferred out of Georgia before completing their college careers.)
TIGHT ENDS: Brock Bowers and Isaac Nauta. I went with two, even though the traditional formation has one tight end, because Georgia has had so much talent at that position, and lately has used many two-tight-end sets. Heck, they’ve even lined up with three tight ends occasionally, in which case I’d get second teamer Darnell Washington out there, too. All three were great downfield blockers, as well as reliable receivers. As with McConkey, I’m glad the extremely productive Bowers has at least another season to go.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Andrew Thomas, Warren McClendon, Ben Cleveland, Jamaree Salyer and Sedrick Van Pran. Because Georgia’s OL players tend to move around, I decided to just go with them as a group, rather than designating choices for tackles, guards and center. The Dawgs also rotate a lot of players through the OL in a game, so I’d also be fine going with these second-teamers: Broderick Jones, Isaiah Wilson, Solomon Kindley, Justin Shaffer and Trey Hill.
Now, on to the defense …
DEFENSIVE LINE: Travon Walker, Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis. Again, no real need to designate an end, tackle or nose here. Walker notably was the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft; Carter was named to the 2022 Associated Press, FWAA, Walter Camp and Sporting News All-America first teams; and Davis won the 2021 Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to college football’s best defensive player, as well as the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation’s most outstanding interior lineman. Second teamers: Julian Rochester, Devonte Wyatt and Malik Herring.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: Azeez Ojulari and Nolan Smith. Even at Linebacker U., as Georgia sometimes has been dubbed in recent years, these guys stood out at a position that often is like another defensive end. Second teamers: Robert Beal Jr. and Adam Anderson.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS: Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker. Second teamers: Monty Rice and Smael Mondon.
CORNERBACKS: Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell. Second teamers: Kelee Ringo and Derion Kendrick. Aside from Stokes, there wasn’t much consensus here, with some folks listing Bulldog Nation folk hero Ringo as one of the starters, while others saw him as a bit too inconsistent in coverage to be one of the first picks. I went with Campbell over Kendrick, defensive MVP of the 2021 Orange Bowl win over Michigan, because the latter played just one season at Georgia after transferring from Clemson.
SAFETIES: Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine. Second teamers: Richard LeCounte III and Malaki Starks. Maybe I’m a bit guilty of recency bias in going with Smith as a starter over LeCounte, who was several other folks’ pick. I did so, though, because Smith, an All-American who played five seasons with the Dawgs thanks to a pandemic extra year of eligibility, was a finalist for the 2022 Bronko Nagurski Award, had that memorable 74-yard pick-6 against Clemson in 2021 and returned a blocked kick for a TD in the SEC Championship win over LSU last year. LeCounte was the Dawgs’ leading tackler in 2018 and third-leading tackler in 2019, but his final year in 2020 was shortened by a car crash injury. Cine finished the 2021 season as the Bulldogs’ leading tackler, with 73 total stops, and was defensive MVP in the national championship win over Alabama, with 7 tackles and a key breakup of a pass in the red zone. Starks had a strong first season in Athens and is considered a star of the future.
NICKEL/STAR BACK: Javon Bullard. Second string: Mark Webb and Maurice Smith. This situational position, essentially a fifth defensive back, has become a lot more important to Georgia’s defense in recent years, particularly on third down, thanks to the proliferation of spread passing offenses. Bullard had 7 tackles and 2 sacks in the big win over Tennessee this past season and was defensive MVP of both of Georgia’s College Football Playoff wins. Webb came to UGA as a receiver, but was turned into a defensive back who ended up with an NFL deal. Smith, a transfer from Alabama, only played one season for the Dawgs, but was a key contributor on Smart’s first team at nickelback, with 50 tackles, 2 interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
Finally, here are the special team players (or specialty team, as Kevin Butler would say). …
PLACEKICKER: Jack Podlesny and Rodrigo Blankenship*. The asterisk is me splitting hairs here, since Blankenship was recruited and signed as a walk-on by Richt, but redshirted and only ever played under Smart, who gave him a scholarship. Both kickers were terrific, with Pod making 82.4 percent of his field goal attempts and 98.9 percent of his PATs, while Hot Rod made 82.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 100 percent of his extra points.
PUNTER: Jake Camarda. He finished as UGA’s career leader in punting average, with a mark of 45.78, surpassing 2009 Ray Guy Award winner Drew Butler (45.4). Second teamer: Brett Thorson, the Aussie native who took over the job last season. Honorable mention: Cameron Nizialek, who averaged 45 yards over 61 punts in 2017, his one year at UGA as a graduate transfer from Columbia.
KICK RETURNER: Mecole Hardman. Second teamer: Kearis Jackson. Hardman, a family favorite because he’s from my wife’s hometown of Elberton, was one of the most exciting players the Dawgs have had in many years. Besides his success as a receiver, he averaged 15.2 yards per punt return in his UGA career, and 25 yards per kickoff return.
That’s my all-Kirby team. Feel free to share your own picks.
(Special thanks to all the other fans who shared their thoughts on picking an all-Kirby team.)