For those still wondering, the reason there was a new football head coach in Athens this season is simple. It was not about the record, but instead what made the record good but not great.
Mark Richt’s inability to recruit elite offensive linemen to complement his two main star quarterbacks is why Georgia had less success in the second half of his tenure than the first half. And that’s the main reason Richt’s replacement has offensive line at the top of his list to fix.
That’s why Friday’s verbal commitment of five-star Isaiah Wilson from Brooklyn, New York, was so important. It’s not safe (nor smart) to get excited about an 18-year old committing to play football, but Georgia fans were desperate for someone like Wilson to promise to play in Athens.
Why else would grown men watch a Christmas assembly for a school thousands of miles away on Facebook, only to wait for Wilson to make his commitment public?
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This was important.
Georgia now has six commitments from offensive linemen. Using Rivals.com’s ratings, to complement Wilson’s five stars, there are four four-star recruits and one three-star recruit. That’s a lot better average than what has been done in the past.
Let’s go back a decade ago, when five-star quarterback Matthew Stafford came to Athens from Dallas, Texas. In Stafford’s three years at UGA, Richt and his coaches brought in 19 offensive linemen. There was not one five-star prospect, while there were seven four-stars and 12 three-star prospects brought in to protect Stafford.
That wasn’t good enough. There were more misses than hits. For every Clint Boling, Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones (good players), there were others who flopped. Do you remember Kevin Perez, Kiante Tripp, Scott Haverkamp and Ben Harden? Probably not.
Then in 2009, quarterback Aaron Murray came in as a four-star prospect from Tampa. In Murray’s five years in Athens (including his redshirt season), Georgia brought in just 20 offensive linemen.
That number alone is embarrassing. But what’s worse is how the prospects were ranked by Rivals.com. There was one five-star prospect (John Theus), only five four-stars, an incredible 13 three-star prospects and even one two-star lineman.
Remember Austin Long, Dallas Lee, Kwame Geathers, Brent Benedict, Zach Debell, Watts Dantzler and Xzavier Ward? They weren’t on the field much, so they really didn’t help Murray.
Think about how disappointed Georgia fans were in 2013 when Laremy Tunsil, a five-star who was supposedly headed to Athens, instead wound up at Mississippi.
There are more of those stories than good ones. It may remind some of the 1991 recruiting class, which was headlined by quarterback Eric Zeier. Head coach Ray Goff also brought in what was believed to be a stellar group of offensive linemen — Chad Chosewood, Mike Fredenburg, Paul Taylor, David Weeks and Steve Gates. Collectively, that group bombed.
Georgia has struck out on offensive linemen for far too long. If a line of scrimmage is mediocre, chances are the entire team is mediocre, as well. That’s a main reason Georgia’s 2016 record was 7-5.
Kirby Smart’s task is to change that. He admitted in his first news conference that improving the lines of scrimmage was his priority. Smart saw it firsthand from the other sideline when his Alabama team dominated Georgia in 2015.
Last February, in Smart’s first class as Georgia’s head coach, he brought in several top defensive line prospects. David Marshall, Michail Carter, Julian Rochester and Tyler Clark all played as freshmen, and all did well. And now, the Bulldogs’ defensive line has tremendous promise moving forward.
Smart brought in Sam Pittman as his offensive line coach, but the two were not able to recruit their type of linemen for their first class. That’s why only three players were signed last February. But now, with six coming in, they’re getting what they want and what they desperately need.
These kids are huge, too. The six committed linemen average 322 pounds. That’s what Pittman wants: big, nasty linemen who will open holes for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and to protect quarterbacks Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm. The days of signing a player like Aulden Bynum, who weighed around 260 when he signed in 2013, are over.
The years of concentrating on skill players and just taking what’s left of the linemen are gone. Now it’s all about building an offense around the line of scrimmage.
Maybe Wilson will not be a star. That one kid doesn’t need all the pressure on him. But his commitment is a testament to the new effort in Athens. Smart knows the key to getting Georgia to the next level. He learned it in Tuscaloosa, and now he’s implementing it in Athens.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.