ATHENS, Ga. — Billy Payne, the man whose name adorns the Georgia indoor practice facility, was talking in mid-2018 about what it was like following the football program.
“I can’t tell you how many times people call me and say: ‘Did you see who committed to us today, did you see who signed today, do you know how many five-stars we have?’” Payne said. “It’s just an amazing, positive spirit that is over the entire football program. It just makes us all proud.”
The recruiting successes never stopped over the next four years. But Georgia is finally enjoying the first offseason when it has something to show for it.
Well, there’s always been something, to be fair: An SEC championship, four SEC East titles, wins in the Rose, Sugar and Peach Bowls were nothing to be diminished. But without the national championship, the naysayers always had something to fall back on. Now they don’t.
“Georgia has been recruiting at a high level for years now. The natty and the (NFL) Draft made it harder for teams to negative recruit against Kirby (Smart) and his staff from him, ”said Rusty Mansell, the recruiting analyst for Dawgs247.com.
And after winning that ring and dominating the NFL Draft, Georgia currently has zero five-star commits. The top current commitment, at least according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, is a four-star tight end: Pearce Spurlin of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., who comes in at No. 71 in the overall rankings. The worry-wart would point out that he’s not a five-star, and that Georgia already has plenty of tight ends.
Should Georgia fans be worried about not capitalizing on the last six months? Is something going on with NIL that has the Bulldogs falling behind?
Nah. The same antsiness has been there in past summers, and Georgia has still managed to finish in the top 3 all but one of the past six years, including third last year. Those close to the program shrug off the NIL factor; Georgia is in basically the same situation as everyone, and Smart has come to be a dynamic recruiter, so few doubt that he’ll adjust accordingly.
In fact, the Bulldogs are in the midst of some heavy recruiting weekends, with five-stars (including a certain quarterback) finishing up visits. The buzz is Georgia’s class will start to fill up with some big names the closer things get to August and preseason practice, as prospects seek to make their decisions before the start of their high school seasons. Here’s a look at where Georgia currently stands:
The overall picture
Georgia will generally try to sign the best players it can, regardless of need, mainly because it can. This year will be no different. But three positions stand out as the most intriguing for this 2023 class.
Wide receiver has taken on more prominence with the direction college football is taking, and the Bulldogs are increasingly looking for speed. They’ve had that on their roster all along, in particular Arian Smith (a top-100 player in the 2020 class), but he’s battled injuries. But coming back at a good time is Bryan McClendon, who as Oregon’s receivers coach the past two years (and before that South Carolina) recruited nationally. Now he can tap into those contacts, along with the ones he had during his previous stint at Georgia. (McClendon recruited south Florida very well, landing Sony Michel when he was tailbacks coach.)
Also back on staff is offensive line coach Stacy Searels, after an 11-year absence, and he already has three commits on his ledger. The most recent is three-star Joshua Miller, a prospect from Virginia who on Monday flipped from Penn State. What Searels does with this class will be intriguing because while Georgia has O-line depth — more than 17 on scholarship — things are much different than when Searels was at Georgia the first go-around. The transfer portal means there’s only so many players willing to wait and develop, so while ideally Searals hopes competition causes good SEC starters to emerge, he also has to hit on some good ones on the front end.
Then there’s outside linebacker (the edge rusher spot), where Georgia again has a new coach, Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who inherits two starters (Nolan Smith and Robert Beal) who are both seniors. There’s some good talent behind them, namely junior MJ Sherman and freshman Marvin Jones Jr., but the team needs to infuse more talent in that room this cycle to avoid getting too thin.
There are nine commitments as of Tuesday morning, Miller being the most recent. After Spurlin, the highest-rated commitment on the 247Sports Composite is Bo Hughleyan offensive tackle from Fairburn, Ga., who comes in at No. 90. The other current offensive line commit is three-star RyQueze McElderry of Anniston, Ala.
receiver Raymond Cottrell, who comes in at No. 101 overall, is a bigger receiver (6-2, 203), but not quite the track type they’re increasingly targeting. (More on that shortly.)
Georgia has dipped back into Las Vegas for another prospect: Cornerback Justin Rhett from powerhouse Bishop Gorman, who comes in at No. 137 overall.
The class at this point is rounded out by a trio of in-state prospects: Four-star edge rusher gabriel harris (Valdosta, Ga.), four-star tight end Lawson Luckie (Norcross, Ga.) and three-star defensive lineman Seven Cloud (Powder Springs, Ga.).
Top Targets in the mix
there’s that Arch Manning fella, of course. It looks like it’s down to Georgia and Texas, and handicapping that one is anyone’s guess.
Caleb Downs is the nation’s highest-ranked safety, and he lives in Hochston, Ga., but the other big boys (Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, etc.) are making their plays, too.
Georgia is considered the favorite for five-star safety jonel aguero of Lynn, Mass. The Bulldogs were in good shape even before Aguero visited Athens last weekend, so momentum appears to be heavily in their favor.
five-star edge rusher Jaquavious Russaw is being pursued by Georgia, and it may be a battle between the Bulldogs and his home-state team, Alabama. (Russaw is from Montgomery.)
Troy Bowles, an inside linebacker ranked No. 44 overall, may be a lean to Georgia right now. Bowles father, Todd, is the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bulldogs also haven’t stopped recruiting Raylen Wilsonan inside linebacker from Tallahassee, Fla., who is committed to Michigan.
One of the top tailback prospects in the country is Justice Haynes, who is from Buford, Ga., so Georgia is considered the favorite, but Haynes is good enough that everyone else — namely Alabama, Ohio State, USC, and Florida — continues to push for his services.
Receiver, Hykeem-Williamsa top-50 recruit from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a major target. Tyler Williams, a four-star receiver from Lakeland, Fla., has Georgia in his mix along with Clemson, South Carolina and Texas A&M. He’s an interesting blend of size (6-3, 180) and athletic ability (also a basketball prospect). Anthony Evansa four-star from Converse, Texas, is also another speed target.
On the offensive line, Kelton Smith, a four-star interior offensive lineman from Columbus, Ga., could be another addition to the class at some point. So he could tackle Shamarud Umarov of Alpharetta, Ga., who visited Athens this past weekend. Searels has also been trying for a few top-100 prospects, including Chase Bisontis of Ramsey, NJ, and Monroe Freeling of Mount Pleasant, SC
As always, this is by no means a comprehensive list, and Georgia’s recruiting board can be fluid. For all the perception that Smart and his staff have chased five-stars, they’ve actually been very choosy, being careful on which five-stars to pursue, and trusting their own evaluations, which has led to getting the likes of Jordan Davis, Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell — three-star prospects who became starters on a national champion. Not to mention Stetson Bennett, or some four-stars who were well outside the national top 250 but have played above their ranking.
Of course, that title team had plenty of five-stars, too. Georgia may not have any of those at the moment, but that changing, and perhaps soon, is a very safe bet.
(Top photo: Rob Davis/UGA Athletics)