The SEC Championship Game must have seemed like Groundhog Day for the Georgia Bulldogs and their fans, watching a long-held lead over Alabama slip away thanks to the heroics of a backup Crimson Tide quarterback. Then, while either unable to shake off the disappointment, or not properly motivated by it after losing out on a College Football Playoff bid, the Dawgs were upset in the Sugar Bowl by Texas.
Fortunately, National Signing Day helped reverse the negative momentum of back-to-back losses. After head coach Kirby Smart and his coaching staff ended Alabama’s domination on the recruiting trail with the No. 1-ranked class in 2018, the Bulldogs added 24 signees from December to February to finish a close second behind the Tide in the most recent cycle. Georgia signed five five-star recruits in the 247Sports Composite, which was more than any other FBS program. Three of them, and 14 newcomers total, have already enrolled in classes at the university and will go through spring practice.
With spring around the corner and G-Day on the horizon, we take a closer look at five new players to watch as the Bulldogs attempt to get over the Alabama hump in 2019.
Nolan Smith, DE/LB
The Georgia defense managed just 24.0 sacks during the 2018 season, which ranked 12th in the SEC and No. 84 in the country. Having played 14 games, the Bulldogs averaged just 1.71 sacks per contest, which ranked 13th in the conference and No. 100 overall. Though raw sack totals aren’t a complete indicator of a successful pass rush (quarterback hurries and hits have an impact as well and sack percentage is a better metric), it’s troubling for a national championship contender to find itself so low on the league and national leaderboards.
Enter Smith, the No. 1 overall player in the 247Sports Composite, who signed with the Dawgs out of IMG Academy. Listed as a defensive end in his recruiting profile, Smith will move to linebacker at Georgia and should provide an immediate impact in pass-rushing situations. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound five-star possesses the blend of speed, power, and overall explosiveness that made him one of the elite prospects in the 2019 class.
As an early enrollee, Smith will go through spring drills, which should also allow him an opportunity to push for a starting spot in a linebacker corps that must replace three senior contributors. Smith and Jermaine Johnson — the No. 1-ranked junior college player in the most recent recruiting cycle — should both play a role in Georgia improving its sack totals next season.
George Pickens, WR
The new December signing period has taken a lot of the drama out of the traditional National Signing Day in February, but Georgia was the beneficiary of this year’s biggest surprise. Pickens, a five-star wide receiver prospect from Hoover, Alabama, had been committed to Auburn since July 21, 2017. Nevertheless, nearly 17 months later and without decommitting from the Tigers at any point, the 6-foot-3 playmaker put pen to paper for the Bulldogs.
Pickens was the top-ranked player from the state of Alabama, the No. 4 receiver in the country, and No. 24 player overall, according to the 247Sports Composite. Though not blazing fast, Pickens’ long frame and physical play helps him create space with smaller defensive backs. He’s also been tested against top competition while playing at state power Hoover High School, as well as the Under Armour All-America Game and Polynesian Bowl.
Unlike the other four players on this list, Pickens has yet to enroll at Georgia and won’t join the team until summer. Still, his size and skill — plus the fact the Bulldogs must replace four of their top five receivers from the 2018 squad — give Pickens great odds of early playing time.
Nakobe Dean, LB
Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson should help the Bulldogs upgrade their pass rush as outside linebackers and rush ends, but the linebacker position itself is arguably the most concerning unit on the Georgia defense. The Bulldogs lost seniors Juwan Taylor, D’Andre Walker and Natrez Patrick to graduation after the trio combined for 141 stops in 2018. Walker made 13 consecutive starts at the Jack inside linebacker spot, Taylor was the primary starter on the weak side and Crowder and Patrick split duties in the middle. Monty Rice and Tae Crowder return after posting 59 and 53 total tackles, respectively, and Walter Grant, who started eight games and accounted for 21 tackles, and former five-star standout Brenton Cox, should see more playing time as well. But with three major contributors gone, playing time is available to newcomers.
Dean, a five-star Mississippi native, could position himself to take advantage of that opportunity. Dean is undersized at 6-foot and 220 pounds, but his athleticism is off the charts. According to his 247Sports recruiting profile, Dean has a 40-inch vertical and runs a 4.75-second 40, while also posting a 4.01-second shuttle time at The Opening last summer. By comparison, Pickens — one of the elite playmaking receivers in the nation - ran 4.73 in the 40 and 4.37 in the shuttle and leapt 32.9 inches at the same event.
Dean was a tackling machine at Horn Lake High, racking up more than 300 combined stops over his final two seasons. He can also get to the quarterback, having posted 16 sacks over the same time period. Because of his productive high school career and elite athleticism, and Georgia’s need for depth at linebacker, we should expect to see Dean on the field early and often.
Tyrique Stevenson, CB
Similar to linebacker, cornerback is a position in transition for the Bulldogs. Deandre Baker earned All-American recognition, won the Thorpe Award given to the top defensive back in the nation, and will play on Sundays in 2019. Baker’s tag-team partners, Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, split the opposite starting role as a true freshman and redshirt freshman, respectively, but neither is a lock at the top of the depth chart for 2019.
Stevenson ranked No. 37 overall in the 247Sports Composite and third among all high school cornerbacks, earning high four-star status in the combined ratings. However, 247Sports itself ranked Stevenson among the top 20 players in the country and assigned him a fifth star, indicating the South Florida native has the talent to push for early playing time, and potentially a starting job. Stevenson will have plenty of time given he has already enrolled at Georgia and will participate in spring practice.
Stevenson (6-0, 209) might grow out of the cornerback position, but he is fast and athletic enough to match up one-on-one with receivers, and also has the coverage and ball skills to excel at the position long-term. Regardless of whether or not he sticks at corner, moves to safety, linebacker or a hybrid position similar to the one former Alabama All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick (to whom Stevenson has often been compared) shined in at college, Stevenson will quickly find a spot on the defensive side of the football for the Dawgs.
Dwan Mathis, QB
It’s highly likely each of the four freshmen listed above will see the field in 2019, and all could be in line for significant playing time throughout the season. If everything goes according to plan, Mathis won’t take many (if any) snaps for the Bulldogs this year. Yet following the transfer of Justin Fields, the four-star signee might have to step in should something happen to starter Jake Fromm.
Mathis was committed to Ohio State before reports of Fields’ plans to join the Buckeyes and the Michigan native instead signed with Georgia in December. Though ranked No. 311 and 11th among pro-style quarterbacks (an interesting designation given he was athletic enough to play some receiver in high school) in the 247Sports Composite, opinions are mixed on his long-term potential. The scouts at 247Sports itself slotted the 6-foot-4, 197-pound signal-caller much lower at No. 877 overall — in the mid-three-star range — and 23rd among high school pocket passers.
Mathis also was courted by Michigan State and Iowa State, so plenty of Power 5 programs were intrigued by his strong arm. However, Mathis is slender and might need time to develop physically. But with Fromm and the recently returned Stetson Bennett IV (a former Georgia walk-on who spent 2018 in junior college) the only other scholarship QBs on the roster, Mathis could be pressed into early action if Fromm tweaks an ankle — making his role as a backup critical. Fortunately, Mathis enrolled shortly after Signing Day, and will have a full spring to study the playbook.