Signing Day is essentially in the books, and it looks like the Georgia Bulldogsa have wrapped up yet another top 10 recruiting class (#7 at the moment according to 247Sports). That's not unusual, of course. Mark Richt's classes in Athens were ranked in the top ten far more often than they weren't.
Recruiting rankings matter. That's an inconvenient truth for much of college football. The fact of the matter is that in any given year there are rarely more than fifteen to eighteen teams who begin the season with even a colorable argument that they have a shot to win a national title. Because a certain level of talent is a prerequisite. Thinking you can win a national title with a roster full of two and three star recruits in an era in which you have to battle through 12 regular season games, a conference title game, and two playoff contests is like thinking you can fly to Moldova in a goat cart.
You may be able to develop some of those guys into five star talents. But you won't develop all of them into that level of player, and almost certainly not enough to field a 'Bama level roster following the injuries attendant with a season of college football. And the odds of developing a championship level two deep of twenty two lean, mean football machines improve dramatically when you start with twenty-plus four star and five star recruits every season. Sure you'll watch a few of them leave because they couldn't hack it. But if you're one of college football's power elite, there are more where they came from.
All of that preamble was leading up to this statement, which I don't think I've been able to make about a Georgia football recruiting class in almost a decade: this is a class that could be the nucleus of a national title run. Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that these players will lead the Red and Black to a national title next season. In fact I'm willing to say that won't happen. And I am not saying that they will win a national title ever. What I am saying is that there is a certain level of core talent which is required if you're going to be among the teams competing to win it all. You can't have obvious holes capable of being exploited. And you need at least a few players capable of taking over the game, of being the best in the nation at their position. And you need depth. So much depth. However many monster defensive tackles and massive guards and versatile linebackers and game-changing tailbacks you think you need, you need more than that.
This group looks like a step, a first step, in the right direction in terms of getting Georgia to that level. Let's look at how the 'Dawgs did position by position.
I'm not sure there's a school other than Ole Miss who can say that they did better at quarterback in this cycle than Georgia. Obviously most of the credit for getting Jacob Eason to consider Georgia and commit to the G goes to Coach Richt and his staff. But Coach Smart deserves credit for convincing him to recommit. Georgia fans will need to remember what freshman Matt Stafford and freshman Aaron Murray looked like. They made dumb mistakes. They tried to do too much. They were alternately too apprehensive and too cavalier, sometimes on the same possession. Eason will be all those things, too. He might start against North Carolina next season. I wouldn't take it as a given just yet. But I have no doubt that Eason has the talent to be the best quarterback in this class, and eventually the best one in college football.
At running back the Bulldogs held onto commit Elijah Holyfield and added Tyler Simmons. I foresee Holyfield growing into a tough, every down kind of runner so long as he can stay healthy. Simmons compares in some ways to Terry Godwin, a guy with speed and shakes who you want with the ball in his hands. While it would have been great to hang onto talented Texan Devwah Whaley, Georgia did what it needed to do at this position: add depth to a position with blue chip players already on campus.
After whiffing on a couple of big time recruits in 2015 and having some players not really develop Georgia had a huge need at wide receiver in this class. The staff accomplished its mission here as well. Big Javon Wims is capable of playing meaningful snaps from day one. Riley Ridley could be for Georgia what his brother Calvin is for Alabama, a threat to take the ball to the house every time he touches it.
Charlie Woerner is a big-bodied, deceptively quick player. Is he a wide receiver? A tight end? I think it's an arbitrary distinction anymore and one I'm not interested with Woerner. He's capable of making an impact in tight or split out. Isaac Nauta reminds me a lot of former FSU tight end Nick O'Leary (a Georgia legacy who also considered the 'Dawgs). While the Red and Black aren't lacking for talent at tight end, Nauta really is something else. So there's talent to work with here.
And it could get better. Savannah's Demetris Robertson, rated by some services as the top receiver in the class of 2016, won't announce his decision until next week. If he chooses the 'Dawgs, this group becomes a strength of the class.
If there's disappointment to be found in this class, it's on the offensive line. Ben Cleveland could be a multi-year starter at guard. Barring injury he will play as a freshman. But from there it gets dicey. Chris Barnes needs to continue to get bigger. Solomon Kindley needs to get smaller. And with only eleven scholarship linemen on campus Georgia is going to be thin up front in 2016. To put it in perspective, there's a real chance that Aulden Bynum could be the Bulldogs second string left tackle. All 268 pounds of him.
It's against that backdrop that Georgia managed to miss out on Archer's E.J. Price, as good a left tackle as the state of Georgia has produced in the last several years. That one was a glaring miss. Price hasn't really said why he chose Southern Cal, and there have been rumors of everything from affinity for the California sunshine, to inability to get admitted in Athens, to the old standard cash money. I don't think there was anything nefarious going on there. But I do think that Coach Sam Pittman better have a list of left tackle prospects for 2017, and he needs to have started calling them this afternoon.
Price's defection for the left coast was a manifestation of the one real systemic weakness in this class. There were more truly elite players in the state of Georgia in this class than at any time in recent memory. And Georgia didn't sign very many of the best of them. Two of 247Sports top ten players in Georgia will be Bulldogs, three if Robertson chooses the good guys. Auburn had three: DT Derrick Brown, DT Antwuan Jackson, and WR Kyle Davis. Georgia pursued each of these players hard, and didn't get the job done on any of them. Jackson and Davis had moved on before the Richt firing, so that can't be blamed, and makes it equally unlikely that those players would have ended up in Athens without a coaching change. 2017 looks like a good class instate, but this year's group was a missed opportunity in some respects. Roswell linebacker Tre Lamar signed with Clemson, but would have been perfect in Smart's defense. North Gwinnett receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is already at Southern Cal, and I expect that you'll see him playing on Sundays.
And then there's Derrick Brown. The consensus top player in the state of Georgia will play his college football at Auburn, and that galls me. It really, really galls me. It's one thing to lose the best player in the state to Southern Cal or Ohio State. It's another entirely to lose him to our most hated rival. Again, that stings.
If there's any metaphorical balm to be applied in this situation, it's the fact that Georgia still ended up with as good a defensive line class as it's signed in recent memory. Julian Rochester is exactly what's needed at nose tackle. Tyler Clark and Michail Carter would have both been the best lineman signed by many SEC schools. Signing Day flip David Marshall could become an asset in pass rushing situations as a freshman, and Chauncey Manac could conceivably grow into a hyper-athletic end. It's a phenomenal group. But if Brown comes into his own on the Plains 'Dawg fans will definitely remember what could have been.
After loading up at the position in 2015 Georgia didn't need much at linebacker in this class. That said, Manac could play standing up and Oconee County's Jaleel Laguins is a physical linebacker who can play sideline to sideline, in the mold of fan favorite Amarlo Herrera. It would have been great to snag Alabama standouts Mack Wilson and Ben Davis. But those were both pipe dreams. It will be intriguing to see what Smart & Co. do at this position moving forward however, as some of the players on the current roster may not fit the scheme long term.
In the secondary, the staff managed to lock down Mecole Hardman, and everything after that is gravy. Georgia doesn't necessarily need players to come in and contribute in the secondary immediately. But Hardman is good enough that he probably will. Peachtree Ridge's Chad Clay is already on campus and has a lot of what Smart likes in corners. He's long, athletic, and makes plays on the ball. As he matures physically and in his technique, he could be a good one.
The new staff also held onto one of the first commits for this class secured by the former staff, Peach County corner Tyrique McGhee. I've seen a good bit of McGhee, and I feel comfortable labeling him the sleeper of this class. He reminds me a great deal of Dominick Sanders in high school, a standout athlete on a team full of really good athletes. McGhee is electric with the ball in his hands, as Trojan opponents learned this season when he played quarterback. McGhee's also earned a reputation as very coachable and hard-working. Believe me, this kid could have been more highly ranked if he'd ever wanted to be anything but a Bulldog. However he didn't play the game, got the offer he wanted, and will now have a chance to make an impact in Athens.
Heck, even late addition punter Marshall Long averaged nearly 46 yards a kick in high school and was named an Army All-American. He joins current 'Dawg and fellow Army honoree Rodrigo Blankenship in giving Georgia one of the most decorated kicking platoons no one has ever heard of.
So there you have it. Talent across the board, at every position.
Now that I have delivered the good news, let me deliver the bad. Nick Saban doesn't actually win national titles just because he recruits well. Nick Saban recruits well, and if he didn't he wouldn't have the building blocks to win national titles. Put another way, a string of blue chip recruiting classes is necessary but not sufficient for winning it all. Kirby Smart and his staff now begin the process of molding the players they already have on campus into more complete players than they were under the prior staff. And they have to develop the guys they just signed, so that they don't become five star players who end up as undrafted free agents in the 2020 NFL draft (Georgia's had a lot of those over the past few years). And then they're going to need to win Signing Day again in 2017. And 2018.
In other words, it's about accumulating talent over time and then developing it. If Georgia wants to win a national title, which is really the only reason to go out and hire Kirby Smart, it's going to take building a roster over time full of blue chip high school players who are developed daily into blue chip college players. Today was step one in that process. But there's still a long way to go. Until later . . .