1/15/22 - Athens - Georgia head coach Kirby Smart greats the crowd during the parade. The Georgia Bulldogs football team, the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship winners between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide, celebrate with a parade in Athens, GA, on Saturday, January 15, 2022. Miguel Martinez for Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The 25 most important Georgia football recruits of the Kirby Smart era: Nos. 21-25

Want to attack every day with the latest Georgia football recruiting info? That’s the Intel. This rep curates six seasons of Bulldog football under Kirby Smart with a countdown of the most important recruits of his time at UGA. The Bulldogs have accomplished a lot on the trail in his seven classes so far.

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Kirby Smart has put together the finest recruiting class in America. He has done that a couple of times. He has also now put together the national championship football team.

With that, we thought it was opportune this week to count down the most important Georgia football recruits of Smart’s time in Athens.

The process of this forced the author to look at two core areas: 1) What the players did during their time at Georgia on the field and; 2) What these recruits meant to the Georgia football program in the short-term and the long-term.

If you’re a baseball fan, then you realize why sometimes the most valuable player debate is not the same thing as the most talented player with the best numbers.

This was simply the best way for any narrative to properly chronicle the most important recruits during Smart’s time in Athens up to this point.

Whew. (Wipes forehead.) This one wasn’t easy.

First, a few clarifiers. We’re not taking into account transfers like the terrific Maurice Smith season in 2016, Lawrence Cager in 2019, JT Daniels in 2020 and Derion Kendrick in 2021.

We will include junior college transfers into the consideration matrix here. We will also split these 25 names up into five installments which will run this week on DawgNation.com.

if there was a No. 26 to name here, it would have gone to George Pickens. Pickens was an impactful player for two seasons and the tail end of this past season. When he was a surprise flip from Auburn in February of 2019, it was one of those major signing day specials that Smart and his staff have become so adept at providing.

Pickens was electric, but returning two-year starting OT Warren McClendon also drew serious consideration for that No. 25 spot.

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Honorable mentions: 5-star CB Tyson Campbell (2018); 4-star OL Ben Cleveland (2016); 5-star ATH Mecole Hardman (2016); 4-star OG Trey Hill (2018); 4-star OT Warren McClendon (2019); 5-star OT Broderick Jones (2020); 3-star WR AD Mitchell (2021); 5-star WR George Pickens (2019); 3-star OG Justin Shaffer (2017); 4-star CB Chris Smith (2018); 4-star LB Channing Tindall (2018); 4-star OC Sedrick Van Pran-Granger (2020)

25. 5-star QB Justin Fields/Harrison HS/Kennesaw, Ga. (2018)

Qualifications: We’ll raise eyebrows here, but Fields deserves a spot for what his time meant. His place in the 2018 class, his summer under-the-radar-lean and an early fall commitment allowed Georgia to build the nation’s No. 1 class around him. It sparked the ‘Dawgs to close several big names. The program’s prestige could not have been hotter coming off the SEC title, a Rose Bowl win and then an appearance in the national championship. Fields served as the anchor piece for the 2018 class. With him on the team, a future national championship was very much in play. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 328 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. The former Harrison star also ran for 266 yards and four TDs.

Key points: Fields was the highest-ranked recruit in the 2018 class that allowed the ‘Dawgs to unseat Alabama as the mythical national recruiting champions. Lest we forget, the key remaining cogs in that 2018 class were vital in the program’s defeat of Alabama for Georgia’s first national title in 41 years. His commitment also showed college football the Bulldogs were going to recruit the game’s most important position like the cupboard was empty. It is doubtful the Bulldogs will ever top signing Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and Fields in back-to-back-to-back recruiting cycles at QB.

His recruiting snapshot: Fields was the Elite 11 MVP, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in America and the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 recruiting cycle. He still ranks as the No. 1 highest-rated recruit signed by the Bulldogs on the 247Sports All-Time Composite rankings.

His football resume: After he transferred from UGA, Fields threw for 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions in two seasons at Ohio State. Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019 for the Buckeyes. He went on to become the 11th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.

Footnote: Fields is one of the most polarizing figures of the Smart era. Everyone has an opinion about his career. He threw just four touchdowns at UGA. Yet it cannot be understated the role Fields had to ensure key All-Americans chose Georgia or remained solid in the 2018 class. Those ‘Dawgs wound up as key cogs in the program for 2019, 2020 and 2021. When he transferred, it also forced the Bulldogs to bring on a junior college QB for spring practice who would lead the program to glory in the 2021 season.

Justin Fields was Georgia's highest-rated signee of the 2018 recruiting class. That was the class that wrestled away the national recruiting championship from the Alabama Crimson Tide. We all know what happened on the field three seasons later. (Jeff Sentell / DawgNation)

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24. 3-star OT Solomon Kindley/Raines HS/Jacksonville, Fla. (2016)

Qualifications: We’re gushing about this pick because this former Bulldog exemplifies everything that matters to Smart’s Georgia. It starts with quality talent evaluation. Georgia will often recruit the highest-rated players in the nation. But they also go out and find them. Former line coach Sam Pittman spotted the former lifeguard in the 2016 cycle. Kindley was rated as the nation’s No. 89 OT prospect. He quickly converted to guard in Athens. Kindley’s career in Athens took off with player development.

Key points: He appeared in one game in his true freshman season. That redshirt year was well spent. When the 2017 season rolled around, he was a cornerstone OL in the program’s second-year surge. He played in all 15 games in the 2017 season and started in seven of those contests. Kindley started in all 14 games in 2018 and then in 11 of 13 games in 2019. Kindley was a vital ‘Dawg for three teams that won 11 or more games in three straight seasons.

His recruiting snapshot: Kindley didn’t even merit a national ranking as the lowest-rated non-special teams player in Smart’s first class. Kindley was ranked as the No. 146 player in Florida in his senior year. He went on to start 38 games in his last three years Between the Hedges.

His football resume: The 6-foot-4, 330-pound Kindley was the 110th pick (fourth round) of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. He started 13 games in his rookie season and in two games during 2021 for the Dolphins.

Footnote: Kindley was pretty much immovable on the field and on the depth chart. As the Bulldogs kept stacking higher-rated All-Americans that played his position in the 2017 and 2018 classes, he remained a part of the first-team Georgia line.

Solomon Kindley was the lowest-rated position player in Kirby Smart's first Georgia class. But he went on to start 38 games in his final three seasons in Athens. He was a fourth-round NFL draft pick after the 2019 season. (Jeff Sentell/ DawgNation)

23. 5-star QB Jacob Eason/Lake Stevens/Lake Stevens, Wash. (2016)

Qualifications: He was a Mark Richt recruit Smart had to reel back into the class during the coaching transition after the 2015 regular season. That was Smart’s first recruiting class and he had mere weeks before Eason was set to enroll as a midyear graduate. It was the first chance for Smart to show he could play 4-D underwater chess on the recruiting trail. He did just that.

Key point: As in the Fields example, this recruitment is elevated for what it meant. Eason’s time at UGA represented hope. When he entered the game for G-Day in 2016, it was like Nick Chubb got a surprise early rep coming off his horrific knee injury. Sanford Stadium was worse than bonkers as Larry Legend used to say. The excitement brought on by Eason’s first snaps was the first SOMETHING of Smart’s Georgia. What Eason did that day caught the attention of several high-profile members of Georgia’s eventual 2017 class, including very big names like D’Andre Swift and Andrew Thomas.

His recruiting snapshot: Eason was the nation’s No. 2 QB pro-style QB prospect and the No. 5 overall recruit in the country in the 2016 recruiting cycle. His signing marked the first time that Smart recruited the No. 1 player from a state to join him in Athens. He’s only done that 14 times so far. That’s not counting the No. 1 prospect from Australia from 2022 with punter Brett Thorsen.

His football resume: Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 TDs as a Bulldog. The way he supported Jake Fromm after he lost his starting job to injury in 2017 was pure class. It is the key lasting memory of his time at UGA. He had to sit out a season after transferring to Washington. That was before the days of immediate eligibility. The 6-foot-6 Eason threw for 3,132 yards and 32 TDs in his only season in the Pac-12. He was a fourth-round draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s now with the Seahawks.

Footnote: Eason led UGA to eight wins in his only starting season in Athens, including a game-changing spark for Smart’s first win against North Carolina. His big arm was exciting and represented a bright future in Athens. He didn’t lead Georgia into that future but attracted many others to that cause.

Heralded UGA quarterback Jacob Eason signed very early in his senior year and used the financial aid form to do so. That’s no longer a thing with the new early signing period. Doug Ramsay / Special to DawgNation)

22. 4-star ILB Monty Rice/James Clemens/Madison, AL (2017)

Qualifications: Fast. Instinctual. Physical. Smart. Tough. Those are the ideal job traits for a Georgia linebacker during Glenn Schumann’s time shaping that position. The 3-year Bulldog starter was a star in North Alabama that didn’t get the recruiting attention from in-state powers Alabama and Auburn. They had other higher-value targets. The Bulldogs led for a long time behind the scenes before Rice stunned just about everyone with a late commitment in December to LSU. Yet when it came time to enroll early in January, it was one of the bigger recruiting shocks of Smart’s time in Athens. He just showed up at UGA. There was no commitment ceremony or public or social media flip. He just went to Athens and went to work.

Key points: Rice would go on to start 28 games at Georgia. He finished as the team’s third, first and third-leading tackler in his last three seasons. He was named second-team ALL-SEC as a junior and first-team All-SEC as a senior. The Athletic selected him as a second-team All-American in 2020. He was also named the team’s co-Defensive MVP after his junior season.

His recruiting snapshot: Rice was the nation’s No. 18 ILB and the No. 334 overall prospect on the 247Sports Composite ratings. He was even listed as a 3-star recruit by the national services.

His football resume: He was one of the five finalists for The Butkus Award in 2020. That goes to the nation’s top LB. His time in Athens adds to the case of “Linebacker U.” during Schumann’s time working with the inside backers.

Footnote: The Alabama native was selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. He was the No. 92 overall selection.

When Monty Rice was in the middle of the Georgia defense, the 'Dawgs were in very good shape. His recruiting story is also one of the most unique during the program's time with Smart. (Jeff Sentell / DawgNation)

21. 5-star OLB Nolan Smith/IMG Academy/Savannah, Ga. (2019)

Qualifications: The Savannah native always wanted to be a ‘Dawg. Playing for his state meant something. It still does. Smith’s recruitment is the only time Smart signed the No. 1 player in the nation. He committed to UGA early on, but the Bulldogs had to fend off Alabama and Clemson at times to retain his commitment. The rising senior has always been an incredible athlete and yet his charismatic personality led others to join him at Georgia. He was a reason why fellow 5-star Travon Walker also wanted to play for his home state, too.

Key point: The recruiting impact matters, but Smith has also made a significant impact on the field as a team leader and a selfless playmaker.

His recruiting snapshot: Smith was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 recruiting class. When he visited Athens over his last three seasons of high school ball, it was always a very big deal.

His football resume: Smith has started in 15 of his 38 games in his time at UGA, including all 14 games he played in 2021. He has earned significant prime-time reps over the last two seasons. The homegrown ‘Dawg was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week two times last season, including after a brilliant day against Florida. The former 5-star placed fifth on the team with his 56 tackles, added 27 QB pressures and his nine tackles for losses ranked second on the squad.

Footnote: It feels like Smith’s most impactful Saturdays as a Bulldog are still to come. He will be an early-round NFL Draft pick after his final season in Athens.

Former 5-star recruit Nolan Smith is back for another year in Athens. He was the nation's No. 1 overall recruit back in 2019. (Jeff Sentell / DawgNation)
Jeff Sentell, Dawgnation

Coming up next: The Most Important Georgia football recruits of the Smart era: Nos. 16-20.

DawgNation reader: Your turn

Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong? Did those two former QB picks hold weight?

Which one of these names belongs or does not belong? Too high? Too low? Who do you feel will wind up as the most important recruits of the Smart era? Feel free to weigh in with your intelligent opinions below.

This list will only get even more exclusive from this point.

SENTELL’S INTEL

(check on the recent reads on DawgNation.com)

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