Georgia fired Mark Richt because of the widening gulf that existed between the Bulldogs and Alabama. The official word was that Georgia and Richt reached a mutual agreement on him stepping down, and there was no mention of the Crimson Tide in the program’s press release announcing the news. But it became clear by late November 2015, after 15 seasons under Richt, that Georgia was not satisfied with winning eight to 10 games every year and playing in Capital One Bowls while Alabama hung SEC and national championship banners.
The Bulldogs hired Kirby Smart away from the Crimson Tide to break through the plateau they had settled into toward the end of Richt’s tenure. His first year in charge brought mixed results: Seven wins in the regular season, a 4–4 record in the SEC, a surprising victory over Auburn, a disappointing loss to Vanderbilt. Far from providing the sort of immediate boost Georgia fans hoped for, Smart couldn’t take advantage of a favorable schedule to win one of the worst divisions in the Power 5 conferences.
It’s clear the Bulldogs need to improve their product on the field. Off it, though, it’s hard to find fault with what Smart has done so far. Georgia is recruiting at a level that will enable it to compete for College Football Playoff berths.
As of Tuesday, eight days out from National Signing Day, Georgia's 2017 class leads Scout.com’s rankings. The Bulldogs count 17 commitments and six early enrollees and boast an average star rating of 4.04, second only to Ohio State’s 4.26. Nineteen of Georgia’s recruits are ranked in the final edition of the Scout 300, one is rated fifth overall in the junior college ranks and 11 rate in the top 10 nationally at their respective positions. It is not hyperbole to posit that this is one of, if not the most decorated recruiting class the Bulldogs have ever compiled. “This group is the best of modern recruiting history—no question,” says Dean Legge, who has covered Georgia recruiting for 17 years and is now the publisher of the Bulldogs’ Scout.com affiliate, Dawg Post.
The primary reason Georgia has fared so well in this cycle is its dominance within state lines. Only a couple of weeks removed from watching Peach State high school legend Deshaun Watson lead a different program to a national championship, the Bulldogs are putting the finishing touches on a class that includes 16 of the top 26 prospects in Georgia. With rival programs in the Southeast (including Alabama) eager to make inroads into the state, it’s unreasonable to expect Smart to nab every target close by, but Georgia’s 2017 class bespeaks its local appeal and portends future success in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country.
The Peach State-based 2017 haul includes two of the nation’s top defensive backs, Grayson High’s DeAngelo Gibbs and Liberty County High’s Richard LeCounte; three talented linebackers in Westlake High’s Jaden Hunter, Cairo High’s Walter Grant and Vidalia High’s Nate McBride; a high-upside pass-rusher, Peachtree Ridge High’s Robert Beal; and the No. 3 quarterback in the country, Houston County High’s Jake Fromm. Yet Georgia has also shown it can reel in top-tier talent even when it doesn’t have a home-field advantage. The Bulldogs went into New York to get Poly Prep Country Day School offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson and Pennsylvania for St. Joseph’s Preparatory School running back D’Andre Swift and Archbishop Wood High wide receiver Mark Webb.
No position group will receive a bigger upgrade from this class than the offensive line. Georgia needed an infusion of talent up front after finishing ninth in the SEC in rushing offense and ranking 101st and 113th in the country, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and Power Success Rate statistics. Smart and his staff delivered. Wilson, a 6’6.5,’’ 354-pound tackle, is the biggest prize of the group, but the prospect most prepared to make an immediate impact may be Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College import D’Marcus Hayes. In total, the Bulldogs landed six offensive linemen, only one of whom, Cedar Grove (Ga.) High’s Justin Shaffer, falls outside the top 115 of Scout.com’s national rankings (Hayes is a top-five JUCO prospect).
Other strong points of the class include the secondary, linebacker and wide receiver. Taken together, the haul is composed of the sort of upper-echelon recruits Smart needs to do what Richt could not: catch up to Alabama. The caliber and quantity of talent Georgia amassed in this class are plain indications that the Bulldogs are building a roster with players who can hang with the Crimson Tide’s annual armada of five-stars, and Smart has already begun asserting his program’s presence in recruiting battles against Alabama. Flipping Fromm from Alabama last March was a huge win, and Georgia also beat out the Crimson Tide for Wilson and added Johnson after he decommitted from Alabama.
The Bulldogs will have done really well for themselves by signing this class as currently constructed, but they should add to it before signing day. South Carolina defensive back commitment and Athens, Ga., native Jamyest Williams could flip to Georgia after taking his official visit last weekend, and the program is still in the mix for uncommitted prospects like Crisp County (Ga.) High four-star defensive end Markaviest Bryant, Brookwood (Ga.) High four-star linebacker Leonard Warner III, Clay-Chalkville (Ala.) High four-star wide receiver Nico Collins and Lee County (Ga.) High five-star defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon.
Still, the class is almost full, and even a weak closing stretch wouldn’t meaningfully detract from the progress the Bulldogs have made in improving their roster. The payoff may not come this fall, but this group can fuel the runs to league and national titles the program sought when it replaced Richt with Smart.