It was a short time into Kirby Smart’s tenure, just a couple months, and he was in front of a gathering of Georgia fans in Macon. One fan rose to ask a pointed question: Why was he always watching other SEC teams play and seeing so many Georgia natives on other teams’ rosters? Why weren’t they staying home?
Smart hesitated a second before deciding on his answer. “You gonna give me extra scholarships?” he asked. Then he went into a long story about how, during his long run as an Alabama assistant, they had studied the first and second strings of every SEC team, and ranked the states they were from, finding that Georgia was easily No. 1. “All right?” Smart said. “So everybody is coming in to come get players.”
It was hard to tell whether the answer satisfied the questioner that night. A year later, however, that fan had to be very happy.
On the field, Smart’s first year as Georgia head coach left plenty to be desired — five losses, including at home to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, and a narrow escape from Nicholls State, an FCS team. But when it came to recruiting, Smart and his staff dominated: Georgia finished No. 3 in the 247Sports Composite rankings. That ties for the program’s highest ranking in the modern era (this century) of recruiting service rankings.
It’s especially remarkable considering that it happened in only Smart’s second recruiting cycle, after an 8–5 season that ended in the Liberty Bowl.
“I think there was a new philosophy, a different way of recruiting,” says Jimmy Smith, the head coach at Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, Ga. Two of Smith’s players, offensive linemen Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer, signed with Georgia. “I can’t figure out the best way to say it, but sometimes something fresh and something new is something fresh and something new. It was different for the guys, it was new for the guys. So there was a buzz around it.
“Once you get a couple of them, then a couple more fall in, then a couple more. So you’re rolling downhill after that.”
That was what happened in the state of Georgia, where — with a few exceptions — Smart and his staff dominated in a way that predecessor Mark Richt never had. Georgia signed three of the state’s top five players, five of the top 10, and 12 of the top 20, according to the 247Sports Composite.
There had been years that Georgia kept most of the state’s top recruits home, such as the heralded 2011 Dream Team class. But what set the 2017 class apart was the next level: Georgia signed seven recruits ranked between Nos. 11-20 in the state, an area of the ranking that other states had routinely poached in the past.
“Georgia really hammered the top 20 this year. And there’s always 20 SEC-level kids (in the state),” says Rusty Mansell, analyst for Dawgs247.com.
Smith, the coach at Cedar Grove, remembers hearing from Smart within the first week that he was hired. Then offensive line coach Sam Pittman came by too, and practically never left.
“Kirby understood what he was tasked with when he took over. I think he knew that winning the state was a mandate that he was given when he was hired,” Smith says. “Whether it was specifically articulated or not, it was something he had to get done. And I think he expressed that to his staff. I think the way they approached this process was indicative of that. They emphasized it, they prioritized it, and they’ve been able to generate a lot of momentum, energy and excitement within the state among the players.”
One of the first to commit was five-star safety Richard LeCounte, and then four-star quarterback Jake Fromm flipped from Alabama, followed by more top 100-rated recruits: tacklew Andrew Thomas, safety Deangelo Gibbs and Johnson.
“A big takeaway from this class is just absolutely dominant in-state effort. That’s something that Georgia just has been thirsting for, is being able to clean up in such a talented backyard,” says Barton Simmons, 247Sports national analyst. “For him to accomplish that in his first full cycle, landing four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 of the top 20 … that hasn’t happened at Georgia in 15-20 years.”
But Georgia also struck it big with some major out-of-state talent. Isaiah Wilson, a five-star offensive tackle from Brooklyn, N.Y., chose Georgia over Michigan and Alabama. A major reason was that Pittman zeroed in on him the summer of 2016, and the two built a rapport. It also helped that Wilson would have the chance to play early. That tends to be a strong argument on an 8–5 team. But Smart and his staff could also sell job security, which Richt couldn’t the last few years. “The coaching staff is going to be there for the next three to five years,” Wilson says. “Coaching security was big. When I camped with Coach Pittman, I knew that I really liked the way he coached, and I could see myself playing for him.”
For better or worse, Smart also brought a somewhat cutthroat mentality to recruiting that hadn’t existed under Richt. When tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel unexpectedly decided to return for their senior years, Georgia suddenly had an excess of both tailbacks and total scholarship players. So Toneil Carter, a longtime commitment from Houston, was informed there wasn’t room for him to enroll early anymore, and there was no assurance of there being a spot for him that summer. Carter took the hint and instead signed with Texas. It was a reflection of a different approach from Georgia — but also and indication of just how well the staff had recruited.
More Secrets to Smart’s Recruiting Success
• More recruiting staff, a benefit that began the final few years under Richt. Georgia has beefed up the number of staffers who help with administrative and other recruiting-related tasks, allowing the full-time assistant coaches to concentrate on evaluating prospects and face-to-face interaction.
• Smart’s knowledge of the state. He hit the ground running because he had already recruited much of the area for Alabama.
• When Smart was hiring his staff, the ability to recruit was a high priority. Pittman, James Coley (receivers), Shane Beamer (tight ends and special teams) and Dell McGee (running backs) were all established as good recruiters. Glenn Schumann (inside linebackers) was in his first year as a full-time assistant, but Smart knew him, and it was apparent right away he was a great recruiter.
One of the models for the overall strategy was Alabama and Nick Saban, and that’s no accident, considering how long Smart was in Tuscaloosa. Saban’s reputation may be coaching and The Process, but the first pillar of his approach is recruiting. The initial step is the evaluation process, and coaches around the state noticed and marveled at how many players Georgia coaches were able to see. “When they got an opportunity to get on the road, they came and saw as many kids as possible,” Smith says.
From there, it became more focused. They honed in immediately on certain players, instead of taking a wide swath. “As a staff they do a good job of recruiting because they know what they want,” Smith says. “They really decide on what they want before they go out, and then they go get it.”
Oh, there were a few misses: Defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon, the top-rated prospect in Georgia, went to Michigan. But generally it was the kind of recruiting class that makes people forget about five-loss seasons. Now, the trick is turning that talent into a team that does much better than 8–5. And Smart says he understands that recruiting, while perhaps the most important thing, is only the first step.
“What you can’t do is say, ‘Oh we’re going to go have a great recruiting class,’ and it’s just automatically, magically going to happen. That’s not the case,” Smart says. “That’s part of coaching, is taking your players and making them better. That’s the development word. So can you develop your players better than the next guy?
“Look, Georgia’s been successful. We just want to take it another step. And we can do that through recruiting and getting the kids to buy in and play well.”
Written by Seth Emerson (@SethWEmerson) of DawgNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.