Opinion: Kirby Smart should be credited for turning unheralded recruits into NFL draft picks
The thing Kirby Smart has probably been most famous for during his first four years as Georgia coach is his recruiting prowess. The Bulldogs have amassed a collection of four and five-star prospects at a rate never before matched in program history.
The Bulldogs’ Signing Day success stories have been so prolific that they’ve probably overshadowed another significant feat — the growing number of three-star prospects that have become NFL draft picks under Smart’s watch.
Two names were added to that list this year. Offensive guard Solomon Kindley — a three-star signee from the 2016 class — was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth round, and the New York Giants chose former Bulldogs linebacker Tae Crowder, a three-star recruit from the 2015 class, with the final pick of this year’s draft.
“I think the development of players is a huge piece — especially when you look at guys who didn’t come in as four or five-star guys,” former UGA All-American Jon Stinchomb said Monday on DawgNation Daily. “Solomon and Tae are great examples of that.”
Kindley’s draft story had a chance to potentially be even better than it was. An ankle injury sustained against Notre Dame last season arguably set back Kindley’s progression towards his NFL career.
“To be honest, the whole year, I never got back to 100 percent,” Kindley said Thursday in a DawgNation video appearance.
Stinchcomb said that injury probably impacted where Kindley was drafted.
“You look at his sophomore tape he was pretty dominant, and took a little step back this year because of injury,” Stinchcomb said. “That’s probably why he was out of the Thursday-Friday race [the draft’s first three rounds] and ended up getting picked up on Saturday.”
However, Kindley doesn’t seem too bothered by that thought. Instead, he chooses to reflect on his memories of wearing the red and black.
“Coming in, I was a three-star [and] we had a lot of offensive linemen who were five-stars,” Kindley said. “To be able to do the things I did, and have an opportunity to get drafted, I cherish those moments because a lot of people don’t come from a three-star [background] and become able to start for three years and do the things I’ve done.”
Kindley’s story is undoubtedly inspiring to many for how he made the most of his time at UGA. And the same can be said for Crowder.
Crowder evolved from wide receiver to running back before eventually becoming a key linebacker for the Bulldogs.
Crowder credits UGA’s coaches for helping him find a home on the field.
“I started playing linebacker at the end of my redshirt sophomore year,” Crowder said. “I had a conversation with Coach Smart and he kind of helped me develop at the position [along with] Coach [Glenn] Schuman.”
However, the transition for Crowder wasn’t always an easy one.
He’s admitted that he was once “coming home each day not knowing if I was going to ever play,” and that caused him to question his love for the sport.
Yet Crowder chose not to quit, and eventually became a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
UGA coach Kirby Smart celebrated Crowder’s journey with a personal message shared on video shortly after the draft.
“You’ve become a really good football player, and you’ve given a lot to the University of Georgia,” Smart told Crowder. “Thank you for the time invested [and] the hard work.”
The hard work paid off for Crowder much the same way it had the previous year for another former three-star member of the 2015 class, cornerback Deandre Baker — who won the Thorpe Award and became a first-round pick of the Giants after the 2018 season.
Baker was inherited by Smart after earning a scholarship from the previous staff during a camp performance in which he allegedly revealed he had “zero” other offers at the time.
It would have been impossible to predict at the time that years later, having been tutored by Smart and then-defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Baker would become one of the best defensive backs in UGA history.
Next year, UGA will almost certainly produce a few more draft picks from its crop of former three-star signees.
Cornerback Eric Stokes returns for his senior season after becoming an All-SEC performer in 2019. Defensive tackle Jordan Davis will likely receive a lot of attention from NFL scouts if he chooses to leave after his junior season, and Justin Shaffer could have a chance to be drafted as well if he earns a starting spot along the offensive line.
Stories like these are a credit to Smart and his abilities as a developer of talent, but they’ll probably happen less frequently in the future.
Three-star signees are becoming an endangered species around the UGA program. The previous four Bulldogs’ signing classes ranked third, first, second and first. It’s hard to develop three-stars into NFL draft picks when there are no longer any three-star recruits in your program.
Yet for now, a few remain. And soon the names of Stokes, Davis and Shaffer could join Baker, Crowder and Kindley as players who made the most of their opportunity at UGA and thrived under the development and leadership of Smart and his staff.