One of Kirby Smart’s main talking points this season has been that despite the target painted on their backs as national champions, his team remains the hunters, not the hunted.
The Top ‘Dawg and his staff recruited that way for the 2023 cycle, signing 26 recruits from 12 different states. Along the way they filled roster needs not with developmental projects but with a squad of elite players talented enough to compete with the elite players already in Athens.
Overall the class remains ranked #2 in the nation behind Alabama’s haul, though the ‘Dawgs did close the gap with the Tide ever so slightly. National top 100 defensive tackle Jordan Hall out of Jacksonville will likely make his decision tomorrow and could pull the Red and Black even closer, to say nothing of the nation’s top tight end recruit Duce Robinson, who will decide in February.
But there’s no doubt that Georgia signed the kind of class with which you restock a national champion. It’s a solid class across the board but some positions truly stand out.
As befits a team led by one of America’s foremost defensive minds, that side of the ball is absolutely loaded. The Athenians signed five defensive backs, six if one counts North Carolina athlete KJ Jones. Corner AJ Harris out of Phenix City was rated the top player in the state of Alabama and at 6’1, 185 has the frame to grow into a safety. Like freshman standout Malaki Starks Harris covers a ton of ground and plays the ball aggressively. I expect big things from him immediately. Safety Joenel Aguero is another five star prospect with serious potential, a stoutly built backend defender who could move up to linebacker and feature in nickel blitz packages.
Kirby Smart has now signed arguably “the best defensive back class in UGA history” for three years running. In the process he’s found several bona fide stars. But he’s also got a bench full of former national top 100 players at the position, and that almost inevitably means some transfers this offseason. Harris and Aguero could both see the field in 2023, as could Florida corner Daniel Harris, who decommitted from the ‘Dawgs but ultimately chose Georgia over Penn State on Signing Day. Daniel Harris is still developing as a cover corner. But at 6’2, 175 pounds with a long arm span and a 10.70 100 meters time, he may have the highest ceiling of the stellar signees in this group.
If it’s possible, the linebackers in this class could be even more impressive. Four star Tallahassee standout Raylen Wilson is, for my money, perhaps the most exciting player in this class. The 6’2, 215 pounder has the type of sideline to sideline speed to follow in the footsteps of Roquan Smith and Nakobe Dean. His fellow Floridian Troy Bowles is more fluid in coverage but as polished as you’d expect the son of an NFL head coach (Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles) to be. As he continues to mature he could become a high football IQ fixture in the linebacking corps not unlike Nolan Smith. Barnesville’s CJ Allen is a true inside linebacker, a stout 6’1, 220 pound missile of a man who also ran for over 1600 yards as a senior tailback. Honestly, he’s an impressive enough all-around athlete that Allen likely would have been one of the nation’s top 20 running backs if he’d focused on that position.
Georgia has the nucleus of a solid linebacking unit in 2023 with Smael Mondon, Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Rian Davis, MJ Sherman, Chaz Chambliss, Trezman Marshall and Darris Smith (among others) all likely returning. But those three freshman linebackers are going to be hard to keep off the field.
Up front Georgia signed one gap-stuffing trench monster in 6’6, 340 pound North Carolinian Jamaal Jarrett. They’d like to add another inside tackle in Jordan Hall. While I might have liked to see one more elite recruit in the middle, both of those guys are exciting prospects.
And, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Smart & Co. loaded up on edge rushers in a way that frankly shouldn’t be legal. The headliner is Floridian Damon Wilson, the #13 player in America and the #2 edge rusher according to the 247Sports Composite. The 6’4, 235 pound Venice native is one of the more skilled high school pass rushers I’ve seen in the past three years, strong for his size and with heavy hands and surprisingly quick feet. He has the physical skills to one day take over games the way Leonard Floyd and Azeez Ojulari could, where you knew they were coming on third down but also that there was nothing you could do to stop it. His fellow edge Samuel M’Pemba grew up playing soccer and has the fluid athleticism you’d expect from that background. But at 6’3, 240 he’s only just growing into his football skills. His future teammate Gabe Harris is a longer player at around 6’5, 230, and may not be quite as physical yet, but has a fantastic first step and could grow into an every down player on the outside.
In short, Georgia signed potential All-SEC players at every level of the defense. That’s been a winning strategy so far, as competition on the Bulldog defense has built a rotating cast of some of the best plug-and-play football players in America. It’s hard to give the class anything but an A+ on that side of the ball.
Offensively the ‘Dawgs had some solid hits, but frankly some misses too. The obvious one is the lack of a quarterback. The decision to go “Arch Manning or bust” left the Bulldogs out in the cold when Eli and Peyton’s nephew decided to continue the family tradition of starring on non-title winning teams at Texas. That being said, Georgia already had their guy for 2024 in Connecticut native Ryan Puglisi, and Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff, and Gunner Stockton are in place to fight for the starting job next season. Personally I’m a Stockton acolyte just from what I’ve seen, but I expect Todd Monken will be able to find someone to take the snaps.
At tailback Bulldog fans remain a little sore that Justice Haynes, the top back in the state, one of the top 2-3 in the nation, and the son of Bulldog great Verron Haynes, is headed to Alabama. He’ll be joined by the Peach State’s top player, safety Caleb Downs. Losing arguably the top two players in Georgia to the Tide isn’t ideal, and has the potential to foster some grousing if that duo does well at the Capstone.
And candidly, I’m not 100% sold on the back Georgia did end up with in this class, California native Roderick Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, the 6’1, 230 pound Robinson has good burst for a back of his size. But the film I’ve seen was against uneven competition, and didn’t showcase the vision and elusiveness I’d like to see. He may well be a great “thunder” back, but Georgia will need a lightning type to complement him.
Those are about all the nits I can find to pick, however. As you would expect from a school that bills itself as “Tight End U.”, that position featured prominently. A pair of UGA legacies, Norcross native Lawson Luckie and Santa Rosa Beach, Florida’s Pearce Spurlin, should keep the competition strong in Coach Hartley’s meeting room.
With a good bit of attrition likely at the receiver position Georgia needed to sign some difference makers on the outside. I still expect the Red and Black to add one and perhaps two receivers from the transfer portal. But the three high school prospects in this class could each be difference makers. Lakeland, Florida standout Tyler Williams has great size (6’3, 200) and was a legitimate mid major basketball prospect before deciding to commit to football. The four star prospect from one of Florida’s powerhouse programs has the tools to be a deep threat, and is a weapon after the catch.
Texan Anthony Evans will likely start out in the slot, but is one of those versatile water bug type receivers Coach Monken likes to get creative with. But the signee who I believe may be most likely to contribute early is Philadelphian Yazeed Haynes. The 6’1, 170 pound four star prospect has a smooth stride but can find another gear quickly and take the top off defenses. In a class full of ballyhooed prospects, he may be the closest thing to a sleeper.
Up front Coach Searels will get a lot to work with, as if he didn’t have a pretty full cupboard already. Charleston offensive tackle Monroe Freeling has enviable explosiveness and feet for a 6’7, 290 pound player, and the frame to ultimately play around 315 pounds without losing a step. Fellow tackle Bo Hughley out of Fairburn’s Langston Hughes High is a gifted athlete as well, and plays with a nasty streak. Either of them could become a multi year starter. Columbus native Kelton Smith could play anywhere on the line and at 6’5, 300 pounds looks to me to have the frame to add good weight, despite already being plenty strong. Brunswick’s Jamal Meriweather is an intriguing prospect, a 6’6.5, 280 pound track and field standout who played mostly on defense until his junior year. Since then he helped anchor one of South Georgia’s best offensive lines and picked up late offers from not only the Bulldogs but also Tennessee, Southern Cal, Utah, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. He could turn into one of those late cycle steals we’ve seen so often in the Kirby Smart era.
Heck, the Classic City Canines even signed perhaps the nation’s top kicker, Louisianan Peyton Woodring, who earlier this year crushed a state record 60 yard field goal.
✅ 60 Yards#KohlsKicking No. 1 ranked kicker and @GeorgiaFootball commit, Peyton Woodring, crushes a Louisiana state record field goal.#KohlsHighlights // #GoDawgs— Kohl's Kicking Camps (@KohlsKicking) November 5, 2022
It’s a class with very few holes. One with a margin for error, even. If half of the players in this class live up to their potential then Georgia will have the talent to keep chugging along as one of college football’s perennial title contenders.
When you win a national title you gain entre to just about every living room on the recruiting trail. Kirby Smart and his staff leveraged that cache into a signing class that spanned the entire country and brings in players who fit just right with what they want to do. It’s an incredibly impressive group, impressively crafted. Kirby Smart wants to be the hunter. And it looks to me like these ‘Dawgs definitely will hunt.