Kirby Smart has college football's best recruiting pitch, but the window is already closing – Saturday Down South
Winning in college football is as much a product of success on the recruiting trail as anything else. Innovative schemes, workout programs and in-game coaching don’t mean much if a program can’t recruit the right players.
Few understand this more than Alabama coach Nick Saban, who built one of the sport’s dominant dynasties in part because of his ability to consistently convince the nation’s elite prospects to sign with the Crimson Tide. One of Saban’s greatest weapons on the recruiting trail was Kirby Smart, the man now tasked with bringing Georgia to Alabama’s level.
Smart’s first season wasn’t the groundbreaking debut that Bulldogs fans had hoped for, but he has a unique recruiting advantage that could help him launch the next dynasty if he takes control of the opportunity.
Several of Saban’s assistants from years past are now head coaches at premier programs, including Jim McElwain, Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp. Each has achieved some level of success, and their association with Saban is a useful pitch on the recruiting trail.
Of all his assistants, however, there is no one more closely tied to Saban than his defensive coordinator for eight years at Alabama. Smart worked with Saban for 11 seasons total, including stops at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins.
“That’s one of his biggest advantages,” Scout.com National Director of College Football Recruiting Brandon Huffman told SDS. “The fact that he spent so many years by Saban and so many years as the coordinator of what’s been Alabama’s calling card …
“He was a big part of what they did, and he saw how it was built.”
This long-time association with the coach who some consider to be the greatest in college football history should add greater weight to Smart’s claims that he can achieve similar success at Georgia.
Put simply, Smart should know better than anyone the intimacies of Saban’s coaching method on the field and his keen eye on the recruiting trail.
“What they always had at Alabama was a great eye for talent, and then they developed them,” 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong told SDS. “And Alabama turned away great players to take the players that they got.
“Kirby is in a situation where he’s turning away good players to take other players, but it’s important for him to make sure he’s taking the right guys to fit their culture and scheme.”
Alabama has built a self-sustaining recruiting machine of sorts, which has helped it maintain its run of dominance. That’s not to say that Saban and his staff aren’t still working tirelessly on the recruiting front, but elite prospects know that if they sign with the Tide, they have a great shot at leaving college with a championship ring.
When speaking with some of the most competitive football players in the country, the allure of winning can be a very powerful thing.
It’s also something that Smart can flip around and use to Georgia’s advantage. We’ve established that he should be able to sell recruits on his ability to build a Saban-like juggernaut more than anyone else. Now, Smart needs to steal some top-flight prospects from his mentor.
To do that, the Bulldogs head coach must focus on a few key selling points.
The first of which is early playing time. It’s no secret that Alabama’s depth chart is loaded with 4- and 5-star prospects. Instead of dissuading some of the nation’s elite from joining the Tide, however, they seem to relish the opportunity to compete in practice against college football’s best.
“You’ve got guys like Rashaan Evans and Da’Shawn Hand, who were Top 5 players, and they don’t start until their third year there or their fourth year there, and they’re okay with that,” Huffman said. “They go there knowing they’re going to be able to contribute, they’re going to learn, they’re going to develop, and they’re playing behind guys who are just like them.”
While that can be enticing to some, Smart can offer them the chance to see the field much earlier and put together game tape quicker than they could at Alabama. He also knows better than most what is so appealing about that competitive culture, and it’s one he’s working to create in Athens.
Second, Georgia is no less an NFL pipeline than Alabama. According to a report by NCAA.com published at the start of the 2016 NFL season, 45 former Crimson Tide players were on pro rosters, compared to 41 former Bulldogs. Prospects aren’t hurting their NFL chances by choosing Georgia over Alabama, and they can potentially get there quicker without having to wait for their chance on the Tide’s crowded depth chart.
Finally, and most importantly, Smart must convince prospects that they can be part of the recruiting class that launches the next dynasty rather than become another piece of the Alabama puzzle. This is a pitch that many college football coaches have employed, but, for the reasons stated above, Smart should be able to do this most effectively.
“Georgia, LSU, Texas, USC, Ohio State, those are five places that can go on an Alabama-type run,” Wiltfong explained. “Those places are all capable of doing that. What makes Alabama and Nick Saban unique is that they’ve done it. Kirby’s been part of it, so he knows what went into Alabama becoming a dynasty because he helped it do that.”
To truly compete against Alabama on the field, Georgia must start beating it on the recruiting trail. Michigan and Ohio State, and to a lesser extent Auburn and LSU, have stolen some prospects from Saban, but none can do so consistently.
The Bulldogs occupy one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in America, which may help them do just that.
“Georgia’s always had a recruiting advantage,” Wiltfong said. “For Kirby, [the main question is] can he get them over the hump? Does he have the touch to get them over the hump, having been at a place where they’ve done it?
“He’s seen what it takes to get the crystal ball, but can he duplicate that as the head man at Georgia?”
Smart’s window for accomplishing this is still very much open, but it’s closing quickly. The Georgia coach has secured two very good recruiting classes, but that must translate to the field. A message about building the next dynasty only works until the on-field product proves otherwise.
In its first season with Saban, Alabama fared no better than Georgia did in 2016. Saban was able to take that next step in Year 2, however, which is something that Smart needs to do in the SEC’s weaker division.
“They’ve got to win the SEC East by Year 3, at the latest, and, ideally, they win the SEC East this year,” Huffman said. “Frankly, I think they’ve got to win the SEC, period, by Year 3, before [Jacob] Eason is gone. I think you can only sell ‘We’re building something special’ for so long.”
Georgia moved on from Mark Richt in an effort to take that final step and rise to the level of Alabama. It hired a coach who knows better than anyone how to do that, and Smart may be the person best equipped to convince elite recruits to choose the Bulldogs over the Tide.
Smart and Georgia are quickly gaining ground with elite prospects, but if the Bulldogs don’t start winning on the field, they will lose their best pitch on the recruiting trail.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.