I must admit, I almost fell out of my own chair just typing that sentence. How could any college football fan ever assert such a heresy? Especially a member of Dawg nation—where the Georgia faithful have watched Kirby Smart orchestrate the most impressive stockpiling of talent the program has ever known.
I'm posting this on early national signing day—a day which in recent years has given Bulldog fans the kinds of feelings that can only be likened to the unbridled giddiness experienced by young children on Christmas morning (provided they didn’t find any socks or underwear under their tree).
If you’re Kirby, who has had the unprecedented full breadth of UGA’s massive athletics fund to feed this recruiting machine, why stop? If the kids want to play here, then let them come on down. You can never have too many receivers/quarterbacks/linebackers at the University of Georgia.
As someone who used to watch signing day with jealous angst at the overabundance of jaw-dropping, 5 star athleticism that flowed into Tuscaloosa, I’ve been in favor of this approach almost from the beginning. If Bama, Clemson and Ohio State are hoarding elite players, then we should too, dadgummit! If a few players get buried in the depth chart and transfer out, that’s tough; but that’s the cost of doing business.
My confidence in this system, though, was rattled Tuesday when the surprising news broke that senior linebacker Jermaine Johnson was entering the transfer portal. Johnson, who effectively nudged out Brenton Cox (one of the lost jewels of the 2018 recruiting class), is now out the door, too.
The news is shocking—why would someone who was a key contributor and frequently rotated into the game choose to transfer to another school when he could have just as easily played another year at Georgia or gone pro?
Turns out rotation is the answer to the question. Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner Herald was able to get a quote from the former Dawg’s father, Jay Johnson, to explain his son’s departure:
"Jermaine is a Dawg. He would have loved nothing more than to leave as a Dawg going to the league, but you can’t get to the league without film and the constant rotation for no reason, that’s not going to do it."
It’s no secret the Dawgs like to keep their players fresh throughout the game, but the constant rotation also allows a lot of guys to have time on the field. With a blue-chip ratio as high as Georgia’s, you have to acknowledge that most of them expect playing time early in their careers. As Smart said after the South Carolina game, "they come to Georgia to play."
But with an endless rotation of talented players, you do end up sacrificing eye-popping individual stats. Georgia’s defense, despite leading the conference last year, only had one first team All-SEC player in J.R. Reed. Though highly anticipated to lead the league in defense yet again in 2020, ESPN’s preseason All-SEC team had only two players from our unit. It has rightly earned the nickname of the "no-name defense."
If putting up big numbers is what’s important for Jermaine Johnson, Georgia might not be the best place for him. It’s worth noting, too, that despite having to share the field with Azeez Ojulari, Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith, he has been very effective with his opportunities. If he can maintain his pace at a school that’s committed to keeping him on the field, it could pay dividends for his future draft stock.
The obvious caveat to that, though, is he may have to play at a smaller school to get that kind of playing time. A cursory glance at this year’s defensive stat leaders in FBS play reveals a lot of no-name players from a lot of no-name schools.
Big programs with deep rosters are more likely to cycle through players, but there are signs of this changing. Alabama, who is largely responsible for starting the trend of constant rotation, is even now rotating less on defense. Their second and third-stringers are still seeing the field, but it’s usually when the game has already been decided.
Most college football fans can tell you who Bama’s best defensive players are. If I were to ask fans who Georgia’s best outside linebacker was, the ones who were knowledgeable would probably say Ojulari. But if I were to ask who our second-best was, results would likely vary between Johnson, Smith, and even Anderson.
To the Georgia fan, it’s a mouth-watering smorgasbord of pain for whomever we’re playing. If you have one of the deepest rosters in the country, then why not put as many of these players on the field as you can? For the players, though, it can also be a deck of cards to get lost in.
So is Georgia getting too deep for its own good? The logical answer is probably an emphatic no. Last I checked, teams who weren’t stockpiling talent also weren’t winning championships. Losing Jermaine Johnson over playing time is not that unusual in the current landscape of college football, either.
However, it does raise some interesting concerns over whether or not the frequent rotation of players is a good roster management system. If rotating players is an integral part of Kirby's strategy or player development plan, then there is no reason to stop—at least not now, anyway—just because one of our guys decided it wasn't for him.
If we’re rotating guys in and out of the game for the sake of keeping everyone happy, though, it might be time to explore other ways to keep the troops content.