The story of Georgia recruiting from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart

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On National Signing Day 2017, Kirby Smart signed a class that finished third nationally both in overall score and average recruit rank according to the 247 Sports Composite. One of the ways he was able to find so much success was by keeping many of the best players in the Peach State at home.

Smart’s excellent haul is only a small piece in the story of recruiting in the state of Georgia, however.

Georgia Rising

Georgia is becoming more and more of an important state in recruiting. One reason why is in its raw numbers.

The modern, Internet era of recruiting began in 2002. Back then, however, the fledgling Rivals and Scout services weren’t nearly as comprehensive in their coverage as all of the major outlets are now. Some of the growth in the number of rated recruits is simply from larger recruiting service staffs evaluating larger numbers of players.

Be that as it may, the number of at least 3-star rated recruits from the state of Georgia has increased faster than the number for the whole country has. Here is how the growth rate versus five years in the past (e.g. how much larger is the pool of recruits in 2007 than in 2002) compares for Georgia and the country as a whole. For this and everything else in this piece, I’m pulling from the 247 Sports Composite.

Georgia’s growth rises and falls with the national growth rate, suggesting that a lot of the variance is due to the changes in how many players the recruiting services look at. Still, the growth in Georgia is consistently ahead of the rate for the rest of the country.

Georgia players are having a larger impact as they’ve grown in numbers, too. For instance among quarterbacks, Peach State products Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, and Deshaun Watson combined to appear in four of the last seven national championship games. Gainesville, Georgia’s own Blake Sims guided Alabama to the College Football Playoff in 2014 as well.

Running Out Richt

There were a number of reasons why many Georgia fans were ready to move on from Mark Richt after 2015 despite his largely consistent rate of winning. Not bringing home an SEC championship since 2005 was a big one. Among the most devoted Bulldog fans, something that was just as big was the sense that he was losing control of recruiting in the state.

As far as the recruiting service ratings go, UGA’s share of blue chip 4-star and 5-star recruits from its home state was declining. Some of that fact simply came from the aforementioned trends. In 2004, only 11 total prospects in Georgia got a blue chip rating. That figure topped out in the Richt era at 34 in 2014. The scholarship limits didn’t change during that time, so the percentage of top talent going to Athens was bound to drop.

Still, the trend was clear.

It didn’t have the lowest percentage on the chart, but the 2013 cycle was the nadir for Richt and in-state recruiting.

The top seven prospects in Georgia went out of state. Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top recruit, went to Ole Miss; to be fair, his brother already being in Oxford played a role there. Richt lost out on a pair of defensive linemen after that in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, guys who anchored Auburn’s defensive renaissance in 2016.

Fourth was Vonn Bell, who went on to star at Ohio State. Fifth and sixth were Alvin Kamara and Tyren Jones, a couple of guys who went to Alabama but didn’t stay long. Kamara eventually ended up a big contributor for Tennessee. Seventh was Demarcus Robinson, who became one of Florida’s top receivers in 2014 and 2015.

Georgia took a quarterback in 2013 with Brice Ramsey. He ended up a better punter than signal caller. Ramsey’s inability to fulfill his 4-star rating is why Georgia got the Greyson Lambert experience after Hutson Mason graduated. Another quarterback from Georgia who came out of high school that year was Alpharetta’s Joshua Dobbs. If 247 Sports has it right, UGA didn’t even offer Dobbs a scholarship.

Further down the list, UGA offered but couldn’t land Loganville’s 4-star running back Wayne Gallman. He and the next year’s 4-star Georgia product Deshaun Watson were obviously a huge part of Clemson’s amazing run the past couple of years.

Smart Strikes Back

Kirby Smart’s transitional 2016 class managed to tick above the trendline for blue chips choosing Georgia, but not by much. It was this year where the big change happened.

Here is the previous chart, only this time with Smart’s two classes included.

Smart signed 16 of the 33 blue chip recruits in the state. UGA came a hair away from breaking the 50 percent mark, a level it hasn’t reached since 2006 back when there still are real questions about how well the recruiting services covered everyone around the country.

The Bulldogs did lose out on 2017’s top Georgia prospect, as quarterback Davis Mills chose to go to Stanford. Jacob Eason looking like an entrenched multi-year starter after last year probably had a lot to do with that, and Stanford’s educational reputation is something most schools can’t match. Losing out on the third-highest rated player DT Aubrey Solomon stings more, particularly since he went with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.

Even so, UGA secured 11 of the top 16 players within its home territory. Even better, the Bulldogs boxed out a lot of their direct competitors. Rival Auburn had signed 14 combined Peach State blue chips in the previous three cycles, but it only got one this time around. Florida nabbed two blue chips in 2016 but was shut out in 2017. Tennessee had signed at least one Georgia blue chip every year since Lane Kiffin arrived in Knoxville in 2009, but the Vols too came up empty.

Smart has work to do in order to follow up this blowout class with a similar performance next year. Five of the present top ten Georgia recruits have committed, but they are pledged to Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Florida State, respectively. There’s no reason for Bulldog die hards to panic, as recruit ratings will rise and fall throughout the year and flips are far from uncommon. However, other powers aren’t going to stand by idly and let UGA put a real fence around the state.

Of course, fencing in his home state may be a goal of Smart’s only for so long. Once programs start winning big, they become able to recruit more nationally. If he loses blue chips in Macon, Alpharetta, and Atlanta, Smart might be okay with that because he’s reeling in blue chips from Houston, D.C., and Newark instead.

Indeed, that is probably the most important story going forward for recruiting in the state of Georgia. Smart may have asserted his dominance with the 2017 cycle, and it may lead to big wins in the future. If it does, how long will it take for him to let some local players go in order to reel in big fish further away? If and when he does so, who will come into the state to take advantage?

It’ll be something to watch for over the coming years in an increasingly important college football recruiting state.

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