ATHENS – Garrison Smith was the only senior starter on last year’s Georgia defense. That places him in unique position to judge the upheaval that has occurred since he left campus.
He doesn’t know Jeremy Pruitt. But he does know the situation Pruitt inherited. So as Smith has watched from afar, with Tray Matthews being the latest talented player to depart, Smith’s thoughts can be summed up thusly:
This was needed.
“I heard he ain’t taking no crap,” Smith said of Pruitt, hired as Georgia's defensive coordinator in January. “So that’ll be a good thing for them. Get the defense to step up. Guys aren’t gonna be able to get away with stuff no more.”
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Smith spoke from the Miami Dolphins’ practice facility, as the defensive lineman tries to make the team as an undrafted free agent. There were a lot of problems last year on Georgia’s defense, which gave up a program record for points, but Smith and the defensive line weren’t one of them. In fact most of those issues were concentrated on the secondary.
It may not have been Smith’s position group, but as the only senior he tried to take a leadership role on the entire defense. After the season Smith was chosen as the permanent captain for the defense. As Smith saw it, talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem. It was a sense of entitlement from young players, as well as leadership.
“When I was first here, we had guys like Brandon Boykin, and Sanders Commings. (Bacarri) Rambo and guys like that were leaders. They were able to speak up and be vocal,” Smith said. “Whereas once they left we didn’t have any more guys that were vocal like that. Everybody was so laid back. And that was one of the big things that happened last year.”
Smith declined to talk about any player specifically. But he agreed that “a couple of them” came to campus believing too much in their recruiting hype, and were able to quickly earn playing time because of the lack of returning starters.
“When you already get slotted into a position and you never played a down, and you’re already starting when you come in, you get a big head, and that’s what happened to a lot of guys,” Smith said.
Matthews started six games at safety last year, including the first four. Brendan Langley started the first four at cornerback. Shaq Wiggins started eight of the final nine games at cornerback. All were freshmen last year.
None will be on defense this year: Matthews was dismissed, Wiggins transferred over what he described as a personality conflict with the new defensive coaches, and Langley has switched to receiver.
There was also Josh Harvey-Clemons, who started 11 games as a sophomore at safety or nickel-back last year. He was dismissed in February. Matthews’ dismissal on Tuesday made it six at Georgia since 2012: Nick Marshall, Chris Sanders, Sanford Seay, Isaiah Crowell, Harvey-Clemons and Matthews. Several other players transferred with a push, notably tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith. All but Seay were four- or five-star recruits. All were on campus less than two years.
Naturally, it raises the question of whether Georgia is erring in recruiting evaluation. But Rusty Mansell, the recruiting analyst for Dawgs247.com, discounted that as the issue.
“Georgia didn’t take any chances in signing these kids. There were no red flags with them. These kids were recruited by everybody,” Mansell said. “I knew all those kids, covered every one of them. I knew them at an early age, and nothing really told me this guy is going to be an issue.”
So why is Georgia having more of these dismissals than other schools? Those who have observed this program know well the answer: Head coach Mark Richt has adopted a low tolerance threshold, mostly in reaction to the rash of arrests from 2009-11.
Mansell raised another theory: Players such as Matthews are built up so much via recruiting – by coaches, media and fans – that when they get to campus some react badly to what is called “de-recruiting.” That’s when coaches begin knocking them down a peg, and ideally the players have to practice hard, show up to offseason workouts and play their way into a starting spot.
“De-recruiting is something that you’re going to hear more and more about because these kids are getting more and more attention at an early age,” Mansell said. “Colleges are having to spend a good bit of the summer time and freshmen year having to de-recruit these kids.”
That got to Smith’s point.
He was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, the fourth-ranked player in Georgia’s recruiting class, per 247Sports. He didn’t play much as a freshman, then was mostly a reserve as a sophomore. It wasn’t until his final two years that he emerged as a starter.
“No matter what my star was, I knew I had to come in and prove myself to everybody,” Smith said. “That was just something in me that wanted to do that, you know what I’m saying? Whereas other guys just came in, got handed a starting position, didn’t have to work for it, and all of a sudden they thought they arrived.
“In their position group they didn’t have leaders, so they didn’t have anyone speaking up and saying: Hey you ain’t doing this right, you ain’t doing that right. They just let them get on with the bad stuff they were doing.”
So if Pruitt wants to knock some guys down a peg, and in the process some talented players leave, then Smith isn’t going to criticize.
“It’s just a combination of guys moving on, doing what’s best for them, and guys gotta grow up and mature,” Smith said. “Just gotta be men. You’re not in high school anymore. You can’t be babied anymore.”