The recruiting cycle between a coach’s first and second seasons can be a deciding factor in that coach’s success at a school. Kirby Smart, right now, is at a pivotal crossroads in his second season at UGA as it concerns the Nick Saban acolyte: being a “Jimbo Fisher” or a “Will Muschamp.”
Fisher has become the company man at Florida State with one national title, three ACC championships and a 78-17 overall record in seven seasons.
Muschamp, while not a bad coach, has a 34-28 overall record in five seasons at two SEC schools in Florida and South Carolina.
Smart finished up his first season at Georgia with a not-too-shabby 8-5 record, including a Liberty Bowl win against TCU. Yet, it was marred by last-second losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
The fact that he was replacing a man who went 145-51 in his fifteen seasons in Athens didn’t help matters much, either.
Still, Smart and his staff are plowed ahead, maintaining the #3 overall class according to 247Sports.
We certainly cannot denigrate what Mark Richt did at Georgia. In his fifteen seasons in Athens, his teams performed at a fairly high and consistent level and he always recruited well. His main problem was that he hadn’t won the big one and Nick Saban was practically winning them all.
Enter Smart. It’s not the most tried and true method of coach acquisition, but there is a type of mystique surrounding the Nick Saban assistant. The idea is if Saban puts his trust in these men to help him run his program, then certainly these men will bring similar results.
That hasn’t really been the case across the board. Fisher and Muschamp are the bookends of the spectrum and it appears Mark Dantonio and Jim McElwain hover in the middle.
Kirby Smart is obviously trying to have the success attained by Fisher, but working with the talent that Richt left him in his first season didn’t always pay off in 2016.
He’s now trying to get over the hump in his second season and his 2017 recruiting class could be the difference maker over the next two seasons.
This group of freshmen coming in have the skills to challenge each of Georgia’s top players.
They probably won’t start, but Smart has done a fabulous job acquiring the pieces to provide much-needed depth to Georgia’s roster. According to the “Blue Chip Ratio” statistic, this class finished with a 20:6 ratio of 4-and-5-to-2-and-3 star recruits.
This is exactly what Smart needed to do in his second season at UGA. He closed off Richt’s 2016 class masterfully and now he’s built his first full class to compete at his former boss’ level.
- Jake Fromm (****)-Houston County (Warner Robins, GA)
Jake Fromm was a huge get for Smart, proving he can not only hang on to a blue chip like Jacob Eason, who was definitely a Mark Richt find, but he can, also, acquire an in-state blue-chip talent like Jake Fromm, who already is on campus for UGA’s 2017 spring practice.
Fromm performed well in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl two weeks ago and the expectation is that if Eason can start as a true freshman, why can’t Fromm? His measurables aren’t quite as sexy as Eason’s, but he has a very good arm and his mere presence on the practice field should push Eason to have an improved sophomore campaign.
- Isaiah Wilson (*****)-Poly Prep (Brooklyn, NY)
- D’Marcus Hayes (****)-Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. (Perkinston, MS)
- Andrew Thomas (****)-Pace Academy (Atlanta, GA)
- Netori Johnson (****)-Cedar Grove (Ellenwood, GA)
- D’Ante Demery (****)-Brunswick (Brunswick, GA)
- Justin Shaffer (***)-Cedar Grove (Ellenwood, GA)
This is the best collection of high school offensive line talent in the conference.
What could be the most pivotal aspect of this class, are the commitments from six different offensive linemen, three of those (including Johnson) in the Top 100 of high school prospects and one in the Top 15 of JuCo transfers.
This group of prospects has the best opportunity of the whole class to make an impact in their first year considering three of the five linemen from the 2016 team are vacating their spots, including three-year starter at center, Brandon Kublanow.
Five-star Brooklyn, NY commit Isaiah Wilson should push to start at one of the open tackle spots, even though he will not be enrolling at the university until the summer. JuCo transfer D’Marcus Hayes, however, is already on campus and based on his size (6’6”, 320 lbs.) will probably get first crack at the left tackle position.
Add in Andrew Thomas, Johnson, D’Ante Demery and Justin Shaffer, all Georgia boys, the Bulldogs will, at the very least, have a player behind each starter from the 2017 class, alone. This is how you can start winning in the trenches.
- Jeremiah Holloman (****)-Newton (Covington, GA)
- Mark Webb (****)-Archbishop Wood (Warminster, PA)
- Trey Blount (****)-Pace Academy (Atlanta, GA)
- Matt Landers (***)-St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg, FL)
Georgia should have one of the better receiver units in the SEC going into 2017 with Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley returning. Still, the coaches were able to convince four athletes at the position to commit.
Holloman (another U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant), Webb, Blount and Landers, provide added depth to a position that’s actually pretty solid, right now.
Holloman, who is a spring enrollee, adds another big target to the fold along with Ridley, as he can outmaneuver and overpower the conference’s elite corners. This is going to be very important as the Bulldogs drastically need to score more points per game.
- D’Andre Swift (****)-St. Joseph’s (Philadelphia, PA)
Smart was probably hoping to get one more running back out of this class, but given the surprise return of both Chubb and Michel and the two rising sophomores behind them, getting just Philadelphia native D’Andre Swift could be worse. Why? Because Swift is one bad dude.
If you watched his performance in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, you saw a kid with blistering speed and fantastic balance and vision. Height-wise Swift is a little small at 5’9”, but every bit of his 222 pounds will be perfect at the next level.
Georgia fans should be very excited about this one. He’s sure to be the next Bulldog great at RB.
- Robert Beal (****)-Peachtree Ridge (Suwanee, GA)
- Malik Herring (****)-Mary Persons (Forsyth, GA)
- Devonte Hyatt (****)-Towers (Decatur, GA)
Like the wide receiver unit, Georgia’s defensive line is actually pretty deep and young. They’ll return fifth-year senior nose tackle John Atkins, but also bring back several rising sophomores and juniors in Julian Rochester, Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter.
All should figure heavily into Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s 3-4 scheme.
Yet, Smart’s experience since the 2012 Alabama-Texas A&M game with the HUNH has provided a catalyst to get slighter-framed defensive ends that can get to the quarterback just as quickly as his outside linebackers can.
He’s taken care of this by getting Robert Beal, listed as a weakside defensive end, but with his 6’3 1/2”, 230-pound frame, may be more of a “Jack” DE/OLB hybrid.
Strongside defensive end Malik Herring, has a little bit more size at 265 pounds to be a legitimate force on the line. He’s around the size Jonathan Allen was coming out of high school, so it should be very interesting to see how he’s utilized in his first two years.
They’re also adding four-star defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt who is a little more the prototypical college tackle at 6’4”, 300 pounds.
- Jaden Hunter (****)-Westlake (Atlanta, GA)
- Walter Grant (****)-Cairo (Cairo, GA)
In the ever-shifting world of offensive scheme, Smart still puts a premium on outside linebackers. They’re just a little bit smaller than Courtney Upshaw and Ryan Anderson.
Yet, Smart does a very good job, here, in getting a new-age outside linebacker in Jaden Hunter who looks to be about 215 pounds soaking wet and an old-school type in Walter Grant who hovers around 240 pounds.
One thing that Smart has obviously taken from Saban is the need in having all types of players. You don’t want to give up on what made your defense work in the first place, but you know you must continually adapt.
These two outside linebackers are a perfect example of that theory.
- Nate McBride (****)-Vidalia Comprehensive (Vidalia, GA)
- Monty Rice (***)-James Clemens (Madison, AL)
Smart and his staff were able to get their hands on two inside linebackers for their 2017 class and one of them is four-star recruit, Nate McBride. McBride fits the bill at 6’2”, 225 pounds. One look at his profile picture on Rivals and you get a feeling there’s a typhoon going on inside of him.
Also, the addition of Monty Rice, who’s in Athens early for spring practice, will spark competition for the rising juniors who started at “Will” and “Mike” last season.
- Tray Bishop (****)-Terrell County (Dawson, GA)
- William Poole III (****)-Hapeville Charter (Atlanta, GA)
- Ameer Speed (***)-Sandalwood (Jacksonville, FL)
- Latavious Brini (***)-Mater Academy Charter (Hialeah, FL)
- Eric Stokes (***)-Eastside (Covington, GA)
This defense really doesn’t have a reason to not have a significantly better unit based on the fact that nearly every player from 2016 will be back. One of the only players that won’t be returning is grad transfer cornerback Maurice Smith.
Still, Smart closed with a flourish getting FIVE total corners. (His old boss usually just wants two)
Enter Tray Bishop and William Poole III. Both are pure cornerbacks with ideal size and speed. Bishop is 6’2”, 200 pounds and Poole is 6’0”, 180 pounds. Both could easily be edge corners and with the Star position up for grabs, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think that one of these guys couldn’t start.
- Richard LeCounte III (*****)-Liberty County (Hinesville, GA)
- Deangelo Gibbs (****)-Grayson (Loganville, GA)
Both starting safeties from last season will be returning, yet the two safeties Smart was able to nab are arguably the two best at the position in the 2017 class.
Five-star Richard LeCounte III and four-star D’Angelo Gibbs are widely considered two of the best safeties in the country and, what’s more, they’re both early enrollees for spring practice.
Gibbs is a larger, more punishing safety who should be perfect in the Bulldogs’ 3-4, while LeCounte is a little smaller, but quicker. This could beef up the competition for the “Star” corner position.
Let’s get this out of the way: this class is straight-up Georgia.
Smart nailed down the state of Georgia. Yet, there’s still representation from five other states in this class. Here’s how it breaks down:
New York: 1
Seriously, I can’t state enough how well Kirby Smart and his staff did at making sure his team got the majority of the best players from the fourth-most fertile recruiting state in the country. He wanted the kids from Georgia and save for maybe Aubrey Solomon and Xavier McKinney, he got them.
Really, the only position of need missing in this class to this point is tight end. While rising senior Jeb Blazevich and rising sophomore Isaac Nauta provide depth and experience to this position group, not getting a tight end in this class will make it doubly important for Smart in 2018.
Smart has wisely distributed his needs over almost every position while also beefing up in areas that already have solid depth.
The goal is and has been for the last decade to compete with Alabama. Specifically, they want to beat Alabama. The 2012 SEC Championship game really stuck in the craw of the UGA athletic department. That was as close as the Bulldogs have been to a national title since 1980.
Kirby Smart was the defensive coordinator for Alabama in that game and to see his alma mater come as close as they did to knocking off the reigning king of college football surely made him realize that were he given the chance he could get them back there.
Well, he has the pedigree and, from the looks of it, he has the recruiting class to back it up.
Now, comes the development.