Georgia’s hopes of winning the program’s first national championship since 1980 received a major boost on June 1, as coach Kirby Smart added two huge pickups in the transfer portal in Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick and LSU tight end Arik Gilbert. The Bulldogs were already one of the top teams in the nation, but the addition of Gilbert and Kendrick certainly helps to close the gap most projected in preseason rankings to Alabama. And most importantly, both players fill an immediate need in ’21.
While no transfer is final until a player actually reaches campus and is cleared to play in 2021, these moves are significant because they address two areas of uncertainty – cornerback and a playmaker on offense – on a team that already had enough of pieces to win it all. Transfer strategy is a new part of roster management for college football coaches. In Smart’s case, targeting a few specific needs has worked out well for the Bulldogs this offseason.
At cornerback, the Bulldogs lost Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes and DJ Daniel off one of the SEC’s top pass defenses last year. Additionally, defensive backs, Richard LeCounte, Mark Webb and Tyrique Stevenson also departed Athens. The six players departing combined for a combined 2,217 snaps last year. On average, each player recorded 370 snaps in 2020. Campbell played 601 of 685 possible snaps, while Stokes recorded 501. By comparison, the top cornerbacks exiting spring ball for the Bulldogs – Kelee Ringo, Jalen Kimber and Ameer Speed – combined for just 63 snaps last fall.
Ringo, Kimber, Speed and incoming freshman Nyland Green are all very talented and will be solid in time with more experience. But Kendrick provides a proven No. 1 corner who can step in right away. After playing as a receiver in 2018, Kendrick flipped to defense the following year at Clemson and immediately earned All-ACC honors. The South Carolina native was even better as a junior in ’20 by earning first-team accolades. Opposing quarterbacks targeted Kendrick 83 times from 2019-20 and connected on only 43 throws (51.8 percent). Also, he held receivers to just 142 yards after the catch. And it certainly doesn't hurt for Georgia to inquire Kendrick for extra intel on his old team for the big showdown in Week 1 against the Tigers in Charlotte.
Kendrick’s addition in the secondary wasn’t the only big pickup for Smart this offseason on defense. West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith joined the team in the spring and is slated to play in the STAR/nickel role. Also, Alabama transfer cornerback Brandon Turnage is also slated to join the roster this fall. With Kendrick and Smith joining, Georgia’s secondary now has two experienced difference-makers on the back end and alleviates some of the concern about this unit going into the season. Suddenly, a group with some preseason question marks is among the best in the nation.
On the other side of the ball, Gilbert’s arrival doesn’t necessarily fill as big of a need, but a player of his caliber and talent is another massive addition to an offense that found its stride after JT Daniels took over for the final four games of 2020. Gilbert – a five-star prospect in the 2020 class – caught 35 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns in eight games for the Tigers last year.
Although the Bulldogs have a promising cast of receivers in place, losing receiver George Pickens to a spring ACL injury was a blow to Georgia’s offense. Pickens paced the offense with six touchdown catches and tied for the lead in receptions (36) and ranked second in yards (513) last fall and thrived at getting downfield or by using his size (6-foot-3) to get targets in the red zone. The Bulldogs have receivers – Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson, Arian Smith, Dominick Blaylock and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint – but none of Pickens’ caliber. Sophomore Darnell Washington is likely to start at tight end, but Gilbert’s versatility and ability to get downfield can allow coordinator Todd Monken to deploy him all around the field as a wide receiver.
Over the last five years, Georgia has averaged a 2.2 finish in national recruiting rankings. Alabama ranks just ahead with a 2.0 mark. Smart has excelled at recruiting talent to Athens and player development is certainly a strength. But as with any roster, there are holes and places to upgrade. Bringing in Daniels, Smith, Kendrick and Gilbert are four (and very targeted) big-time additions to enhance a roster loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.
In Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2021, Georgia checked in at a No. 5 finish. However, the recent additions have certainly changed the outlook for this team. Not only are Kendrick and Gilbert two important and talented pieces to help catch Alabama in the race to win the SEC, but those two players might be the missing pieces in Georgia’s quest to unseat the Crimson Tide atop the SEC and bring a national title back to Athens this fall.
Podcast: Previewing and Predicting the SEC for 2021