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“Kirby Can’t Develop” - Georgia, Florida, and the False Narrative at the Middle of a Rivalry

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Georgia v Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This afternoon Mark Webb went to the San Diego Chargers with the 241st pick of the NFL Draft. With the selection of Webb, Georgia has now had nine players drafted in the 2021 Draft.

Fans of Georgia’s rivals haven’t had much ammunition to talk smack about the Dawgs since Kirby Smart took over in Athens before the 2016 season. Among 221 FBS coaches who have been hired since that time, Smart is the only head man besides Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban to win 50 games, a conference title and a College Football Playoff game. Additionally, he has turned Georgia into a recruiting machine that has landed a top three class in each full cycle since becoming the head man in Athens.

If you’re a fan of another team that wants to talk smack about Georgia, you don’t have many stones to throw. There’s two comebacks that have become a favorite of UGA rivals on the internet, the first is the “1980.” This quip ignores the fact that any national title that happened before the current crop of 17 year-old recruits were 8-10 years-old is irrelevant to a program’s current health, but we’re not here to talk about that.

We’re here to discuss the other favorite refrain of UGA haters, particularly those of the University of Florida. That’s right, it’s time to talk about the most tired of narratives... “Kirby Smart can’t develop talent.”

Some of you might not be active on social media, so let’s check some receipts from America’s smartest fanbase.

This is a small sampling, but there’s dozens more like this all over Twitter that we’re not going to glorify with column space. The narrative is that Kirby Smart recruits five-star talent and wastes that talent.

First off, we should point out that the NFL Draft is an event for the outliers. According to the NCAA’s website there are about 12,650 FBS football players. Of those, there’s about 3,500 who are draft eligible. Only about 250 will be drafted.

The percentage varies year to year, but a little less than half of the 30-35 five-star recruits in each cycle will go undrafted at all. There is an assumption that a five-star draft pick is a bust if he isn’t selected in the first round. That’s simply untrue. 38.5% of five-star players will never be drafted. Let’s look at what Kirby has done with his five-star prospects. The round each player was taken is in parentheses next to his name.

2016: Mecole Hardman (2nd), Isaac Nauta (7th), Jacob Eason (transfer)

2017: Isiah Wilson (1st), Richard LeCounte (5th), Deandre Swift (2nd)

2018: Tyson Campbell (2nd)

Since Kirby Smart became head coach, every five-star prospect that has come to UGA and stayed in the program has been drafted. 66.7% of those five-stars have been drafted in the first two rounds. According to a Sports Illustrated study that goes back to when modern recruiting rankings started in 2002, that rate is about 30% higher than the average across the rest of college football.

So we’ve established beyond a shadow of doubt that Kirby Smart is turning his five-star recruits into 1st and 2nd round picks at a rate much higher than normal. This is where a Florida fan on the internet is going to say something about all of the other guys Smart recruits. What about them?

There are roughly 330 four-star recruits in each class, and in a given year they will make up a little less than 25% of the players drafted by the NFL, which is 80 players per a draft. The odds go down sharply for three-star recruits. There are about 1,800 three-stars every recruiting cycle, and only 5% of those 1,800 will be drafted. The rest of the draft will be made up of 2-star recruits and players from other divisions.

Let’s look at how Kirby Smart’s recruiting classes have panned out in comparison to the national averages so far. (These numbers do not include players who eventually transferred)

2016: 7 four-stars (4), 6 three-stars (1)

The 2016 class is all gone from UGA with the exception of Julian Rochester. Of the 7 four-stars, four have been drafted (Ben Cleveland, Charlie Woerner, Riley Ridley, Javon Wims) and Rochester still remains on the roster. Of the 6 three-stars who stuck with the program, one was drafted (Solomon Kindley).

2017: 10 four-stars (4), 5 three-stars (1)

There are still five players from the 2017 class on UGA’s roster (Speed, Brini, Shaffer, Beal, Poole III). Of the 10 four-star recruits who have finished their eligibility, four have been drafted (Fromm, Thomas, Webb, Rice). Of the 5 three-stars, one has been drafted (Stokes).

2018: 10 four-stars (2), 3 three-stars

Eleven of these thirteen recruits are still on campus, but four-stars Azeez Ojulari and Trey Hill were drafted this year.

Of the Kirby Smart recruits who have finished their college careers at Georgia...

16 four-stars: 10 NFL Draft Picks - 62.5% Drafted (national average = 24.2%)

8 three-stars: 2 NFL Draft Picks - 25% Drafted (national average = 5%)

Currently, a four-star recruit who comes to UGA and finishes their career in Athens is about 2.5 times more likely to be drafted by the NFL then they are across the rest of the FBS. Three-stars who are recruited to Georgia and finish their career are five times more likely to make the NFL Draft.

Now let’s be clear, these numbers are going to change as more classes use up their eligibility. There are also some who critcize Smart for losing some high profile players to transfer, Justin Fields being the most infamous. At this point, collegiate football is basically in an era of free agency. I don’t know that there’s a good way to quantify how well the program did or did not develop players who transferred out, but keep in mind that those guys exist.

On the flip side is guys like Tre McKitty, who was drafted in the third round after only having 6 receptions this season for the Bulldogs. McKitty put plenty of good receiving skills on tape when he was at Florida State, but the vast improvement in his run blocking since coming to Georgia certainly raised his stock.

Also, the number of players really balloons if you include drafted players who were recruited before Smart became the coach. Those are a case by case situation. Guys like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were great when Kirby arrived on campus. Players like Roquan Smith and Deandre Baker went to whole other levels under the new regime.

Speaking of Baker, we should mention a few of the projects that Kirby Smart has developed into NFL guys while head coach of the Bulldogs.

  • Deandre Baker - 3-Star DB who recorded stats in 1 game before Kirby arrived. Smart and his staff turned Baker into a Thorpe Award winner and a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
  • Tae Crowder - 2-Star RB who was switched to linebacker after Smart took over the program. He became a high level player for Georgia before being picked in the 7th round by the NY Giants and becoming a key contributor for them in his rookie season.
  • Eric Stokes - 3-star DB who had never played DB when Mel Tucker first found him. Georgia’s staff helped him put on 35 pounds of muscle and coached him into an All-SEC player before becoming a first-round draft pick.
  • Solomon Kindley - 3-Star OL who was produced into an All-SEC Guard and became a starter for the Dolphins after being a mid-round pick.
  • Jordan Davis - 3-Star DT that the staff identified as a high upside player. Davis is coming into his Senior year, but he will likely be a high-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

No matter how you try to frame the argument or move the goalposts, Kirby Smart has done a phenomenal job developing high-school players into NFL Draft picks.

Florida fans online may rush to ask how a team with 9 NFL Draft picks could lose the Eastern Division to the Gators. The answer of course is injuries, opt-outs, and that Florida was simply a better team that day. Despite last year’s loss, Georgia still remains the much more stable and talent rich program. That is because Kirby Smart is a proven commodity in the NFL universe. Pro teams know that his players will come in and do things the right way, and high-school talent knows that he can get them to the league.

Mullen lovers will point out that he has done less with more, but will gloss over the fact that most of last year’s success came with McElwain recruits. In fact, of the 8 Gators selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, Evan McPherson and Marco Wilson were the only players who weren’t already on the roster or committed to Florida when Mullen took over. Mullen struggles to recruit at an elite level, and so by default he must turn lower ranked players into contributors.

The Georgia-Florida rivalry is at heated levels. Dawgs and Gators fight 365 days a year at workplaces, cookouts and online.

In Athens and across Bulldog Nation, many Georgia fans are convinced that Smart’s recruiting and Todd Monken’s offense has the Dawgs knocking on the door of a national title. To most Bulldogs, the Gators are an afterthought in an ever escalating arms race against Alabama.

On the other side of the coin are Gator fans and their beloved “QB Guru,” Dan Mullen. Florida fans are so certain of Mullen’s superior offensive mind that they believe he can scheme his way past any team Kirby Smart can field, recruiting rankings and Todd Grantham be damned.

In the argument over whose coach is better, each side has strong opinions. When comparing how UGA and Florida fans feel about their programs, one stat seems to be most revealing...

8-4. That’s the record the Gators finished with last year despite having a Heisman Finalist under center and two first round draft picks catching his passes. Mullen turned the best offense in Florida history into a four loss season. Georgia fans would be calling for Kirby Smart’s head if he brought home that record under the same set of circumstances. In Gainesville, 8-4 with a season full of embarrassing antics seems to be more than enough to satisfy the “Gator Standard.”