It’s not been a great week of PR for Kirby Smart and his staff following the recent decommitment of Texas tailback Toneil Carter. Carter’s family says that they were told in no uncertain terms that Georgia doesn’t have room for him in 2017. Kirby Smart says his program doesn’t cut players loose who have committed. We’ll never really know the full story of this particular recruiting soap opera.
But there’s plenty more drama where that came from, especially once you dig into the scholarship numbers Smart is facing in 2017 and beyond. Georgia fielded one of the youngest teams in the SEC this season. Smart talked about it before the season even started, noting at SEC Media Days that something like 60% of his roster was composed of freshmen and sophomores. The upside to that is that in 2017 and 2018 Georgia will likely field veteran teams with experience across the depth chart.
The downside is that there’s not as much room as Smart would like to take advantage of the program momentum and buzz he’s created on the recruiting trail by signing a big class.
By my count Georgia has 64 scholarship players returning next season. That total does not include several players who were walk-ons this season but made contributions to the team, including principally kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and starting fullback Christian Payne. Blankenship’s father already caused a minor dustup by telling the media that Smart might need to give his son a ‘ship or risk losing him. I wouldn’t play chicken with Kirby Smart in that situation, but I imagine the staff will want to find a scholarship for Uncle Rod.
Payne can also make a compelling argument for why he’s earned a scholarship. But Smart has been very clear that he’d prefer not to have to use one on a fullback. So for the sake of argument let’s say that Blankenship gets a full ride in 2017 and Georgia has 65 scholarship players coming back.
There remains the strong possibility (some would say probability) that there will be more attrition (academic, medical, and otherwise) following the Liberty Bowl matchup with TCU. There are in fact several scholarship players who have bounced from position to position or otherwise been unable to consistently crack the depth chart and may either transfer to play elsewhere or hang up the cleats entirely.
Defensive backs Kirby Choates and Jarvis Wilson have both been discussed in this light. Wilson has played in almost every game this season but never cracked the starting lineup and is credited with a solitary tackle in late duty against Louisiana-Lafayette. Choates has appeared in only three games this season after appearing in eleven as a true freshman in 2015.
With Georgia continuing to doggedly pursue defensive backs in recruiting, the unspoken truth may be that some guys in that meeting room now won’t be there come spring. Other names tossed around as potential transfers include linebacker Keyon Brown, who spent his redshirt sophomore season on the scout team, and guard Sam Madden, who hasn’t seen game action in two seasons in Athens. Shakenneth Williams has moved from receiver to defensive back and may or may not relish learning that new position at this point.
Junior defensive backs Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders have not made their intentions regarding a return known, either. Sanders was conspicuous in his absence when four of his fellow juniors announced last week that they’d be returning in 2017. Davis, a former walk-on turned starter, has graduated and could return, become a graduate transfer, or just move on. Thrown into the mix in the defensive backfield is the addition of Tulsa transfer J.R. Reed, who has practiced with the team this year and will become eligible next season.
All of those question marks likely mean that Georgia will actually return between 60 and 62 players next season. That leaves 23 to 25 slots for players in the class of 2017. Georgia currently has 19 commits for that class and at least 9-10 players who are still being seriously recruited. If Georgia holds onto current commits that means there may be as few as 4 slots remaining. With elite players like Grayson’s Deangelo Gibbs (Reed’s cousin, by the way), Vidalia’s Nate McBride, Lee County’s Aubrey Solomon, Crisp County’s Markaviest Bryant, Tray Bishop of Terrell County, and Leonard Warner of Brookwood seen as either favoring the ‘Dawgs or or having them even with another school, Kirby Smart likely has more hard choices in front of him.
Some of those dilemmas may work themselves out. Towers defensive tackle and UGA commit Devonte Wyatt recently described himself as “50/50” between Georgia and South Carolina despite remaining committed to Georgia. It sounds a lot like Smart may be waiting to hear from Solomon before telling Wyatt to follow his heart to Columbia. Receiver commit Matt Landers has a late official visit set to Ole Miss, which is often a rewarding experience for recruits, capable of swaying their allegiances.
The good news for Smart is that he doesn’t have to actually have his roster at 85 scholarship players until August. The bad news is that if he comes out of Signing Day with a number higher than that he can expect renewed scrutiny of how he gets back down to the NCAA-mandated number. That kind of attention is the kind that the Head Dawg does not seem to relish. Until later . . .