ATHENS, Ga. — A general euphoria settled over the Georgia campus on the unofficial holiday known as National Signing Day. Football coach Kirby Smart called it “an exciting uneventful day, if there is such a thing.”
Smart delivered on the promise that brought him to his alma mater a year ago. There was no drama and no surprises. In his first full year manning the lifeblood supply of every college program, Smart’s Bulldogs signed what is regarded as the third best recruiting class in the nation, behind only Alabama and Ohio State.
Not since 2006 – when Georgia brought in a No. 3 class including Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Geno Atkins and Akeem Dent – has a new crop of Bulldogs been rated so high. Not since 2011, when a class was so full of potential it was dubbed the “Dream Team,” has a collective group brought so much expectation.
Georgia’s Class of 2017 has proven beyond any doubt that Smart can recruit. Now he has to prove that he can coach. Any grace period for his staff is over. Greater talent will mean a greater demand to show immediate results.
Smart deserved a little leeway in a transition season that finished a disappointing 8-5. He complained a little much over lack of the talent he inherited considering Georgia has been steadily supplied with top-10 recruiting classes all but twice under the previous regime. But there were certainly weaknesses at offensive line and in the secondary that made things difficult.
That said, Georgia’s offense was unimaginative and never fully found itself in the hands of a true freshman quarterback. It finished the season ranking 87th nationally in total yardage and 102nd in scoring offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney accepted responsibility for the deficiencies and promised better things next season.
“We’re going to freshen some things up on offense,” Chaney said Wednesday.
They certainly have the tools to work with.
The biggest acquisition for the 2017 season wasn’t the incoming class. It was the batch of juniors who decided to stay instead of venture off to the NFL. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will give Georgia the most accomplished returning backfield in the SEC. Linebackers Lorenzo Carter and David Bellamy will anchor a defense with the potential to be great. Had playmaker Isaiah McKenzie opted to come back, you might have safely booked reservations for Atlanta in December.
“Our juniors that decided to stay built a lot of momentum for us in recruiting,” Smart said. “I think any time you’ve got players that decide to stay who have an opportunity to go to the NFL, it speaks volumes for their character and what they want to do for the University of Georgia, but it also helps in recruiting because at the end of the day, good players recruit good players.”
Smart adeptly addressed Georgia’s needs with his latest signings. The class includes six massive offensive linemen including 6-foot-7, 350-pound colossus Isaiah Wilson. It includes five cornerbacks all at least 6-feet tall and a couple elite safeties in Richard LeCounte III and Deangelo Gibbs. It adds a few more rangy wide receivers. It fortified running back and quarterback with challengers D’Andre Swift and Jake Fromm.
Expectations will ratchet up. Georgia was a preseason No. 1 two years after signing its vaunted class in 2006. The Bulldogs reached consecutive SEC Championship games in the two seasons after bringing in its “Dream Team.” That they didn’t win any SEC titles or advance to any national championship games disillusioned the fan base in Mark Richt’s ability to coach and led to the arrival of Smart.
Smart’s start is not dissimilar to his predecessor. Richt took over in 2001 and wrapped up a 10th ranked recruiting class that in retrospect may have been Georgia’s finest with the likes of D.J. Shockley, Fred Gibson, Robert Geathers, David Pollack, Thomas Davis, Odell Thurman and Greg Blue. He followed it up with another strong class after his first full year with key pieces like Max Jean-Gilles, Kedric Golston, Tim Jennings, Demario Minter and Leonard Pope.
The Bulldogs reached three SEC title games from 2002-05, winning two. There’s no reason to believe the Bulldogs aren’t capable of doing something similar with the volume and caliber of players it has stockpiled. Lack of talent will not be an excuse.
Clemson went to back-to-back national championship games without the recruiting fanfare that Georgia trumpets every February, typically having class ranks fall in the No. 15 range. The Tigers coaching staff, however, has proven it can deal with turnover and turn whatever it has into consistent championship contenders.
Alabama may get the lion’s share of the best recruits every season, but it’s Nick Saban and his staff who turn them into the best team year after year after year.
This is Smart’s challenge now, to bring the Alabama way to Athens. He’s proven he can attract the talent in the most fertile recruiting state in America. Now he has to prove he knows what to do with it.
Exciting and uneventful may be fine for February, but not for the fall.