Why there's now even more pressure on Kirby Smart for the Jamie Newman experiment to work
Kirby Smart doesn’t want to be the next Will Muschamp.
Let’s back up. I fear that Georgia fans just got mad online for reading that sentence. After all, Smart has 3 consecutive years of SEC East titles, 3 consecutive years of top-7 finishes and a national championship berth. He and Muschamp are in the same division, but in terms of their respective levels of success as head coaches, they aren’t in the same galaxy.
So let me try that again. Kirby Smart doesn’t want to be the next Will Muschamp as it relates to developing blue-chip quarterbacks.
How does a defensive-minded coach get a reputation for not being able to develop talented quarterbacks, you ask? By repeatedly signing blue-chip recruits at the position only to have them not live up to that billing, or watch them transfer and emerge elsewhere. That can turn into “Negative Recruiting 101” for Dan Mullen’s staff.
You know how that works. A Florida assistant sits down with a big-time quarterback recruit who has Georgia interest and says, “you wanna go to Georgia? Why? Who has that staff developed into a legitimate NFL prospect?”
This past weekend was the first time we got to truly see how the next level valued one of Smart’s quarterbacks. To be frank, it wasn’t pretty. Jacob Eason, though he only spent 2 years in Athens, fell to Round 4. More important was the fall of Jake Fromm, who entered 2019 as a first-round prospect according to several way-too-early mock drafts and plummeted all the way to Round 5.
And don’t you know it, the new 2021 mock drafts are out. Not surprisingly, Jamie Newman and Justin Fields are in there. Smart doesn’t have any control over Fields anymore with him at Ohio State, but Newman? It feels like it would be a major win for Smart if he could nip this trend in the bud.
Georgia’s switch to the Air Raid offense under Todd Monken was well-documented. That followed the news that Georgia signed Newman, who was unquestionably the top grad transfer quarterback on the market. It’d be surprising if Newman wasn’t given some sort of a preview of what Smart had planned for Georgia’s offensive overhaul.
It’s no secret that Smart still has the juice when it comes to landing top quarterback recruits. Besides the aforementioned trio of Eason, Fromm and Fields, Smart signed Newman and flipped 5-star 2021 quarterback Brock Vandagriff in a 10-day stretch.
That suggests nobody is viewing Georgia as a black hole for top-flight quarterbacks. That’s the good news.
The bad news, or rather the “troubling” news, is that if Newman fails to deliver on some high expectations — I wouldn’t bet against him, so this is just a hypothetical — then it’s even more ammo working against Smart. Newman is the first of his kind to become the starting quarterback for Smart. That is, a graduate transfer who already has plenty of good film:
Grade on Deep Throws (20+ yards):
1. Joe Burrow: 98.5
2. Jamie Newman: 96.5
3. Dustin Crum: 96.3
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 11, 2020
Newman is also, however, the guinea pig for the Air Raid offense in Athens. If his abilities aren’t maximized, I can already see what that negative recruiting pitch is:
“You wanna go to Georgia? Why? It doesn’t matter what type of quarterback or what type of system they play. None of those guys are developed in Athens.”
That’s reality in 2020. If you don’t think opposing coaches would use something like that to try and knock Georgia off its recruiting pedestal, you’re naive. And if you don’t think that could potentially sway a 17-year-old kid, well, I’d say that’s naive, too. Has it yet? It doesn’t look like it. If we’re being honest, though, the sample size is still relatively small.
If Newman thrives and takes the SEC by storm, this is all an afterthought. How quickly we’ll forget about Smart’s struggles to manage his absurdly talented quarterback room. We’ll instead shift our attention to whether someone like Dwan Mathis, Carson Beck or Vandagriff can become the next SEC star.
That’s absolutely in play. Newman fit balls into tight windows better than Fromm last year, which is the most promising response to the concerns about how he’ll fare against tougher SEC defenses:
Behind Burrow, Jamie Newman is the second highest-graded QB throwing to a tight window — and third isn’t anywhere near him. pic.twitter.com/xfaAgQaz79
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 11, 2020
Again, there’s reason to believe Newman can turn Georgia’s passing offense into one of the nation’s best. But there’s also reason to believe that it’s a complete unknown at this point.
Due to COVID-19, Newman didn’t get anything more than 7-on-7 scrimmages with his new receivers. Those practices obviously would’ve mattered greatly for him, as well as for Monken. They should still have time to get on the same page, though it would’ve been nice to at least get a spring game against the nation’s top returning defense.
Spring game or not, there’s no guarantee it would have been a realistic indicator for how the 2020 passing game will look.
If you recall, Muschamp made the transition to Bryan McClendon’s up-tempo spread offense in 2018. What did we hear right before the spring game? That the Gamecocks looked like “old-school Oregon” under Chip Kelly, according to ESPN’s Top Luginbill. It was finally supposed to be the thing that squashed Muschamp’s reputation for not being able to develop quarterbacks.
What did we see from Jake Bentley in 2018? Against ranked opponents, he went 0-5 and he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt. Thanks to the multi-interception games he had to end the 2018 season in uninspiring performances against Akron and Virginia (South Carolina was shut out in the bowl game), only 3 FBS players threw more interceptions than Bentley in a disappointing season in Columbia.
Why do I bring that up?
Because Muschamp changed the offense and that “can’t develop a blue-chip quarterback cloud” still followed him. Jacoby Brissett transferred from Florida and became an NFL prospect. Jeff Driskel also found a path to the NFL after he left Florida, which happened after Muschamp was fired. Will Grier and Treon Harris left Florida after Muschamp was fired, and like Brissett and Driskel, Grier also found a path to the NFL (like how Eason did after leaving Smart and Georgia).
At South Carolina, Muschamp kept big-time Steve Spurrier recruit Brandon McIlwain on board — baseball might have helped with that — but he transferred after Muschamp’s first year. Bentley transferred after his season-ending injury lost him the starting gig in 2019 and Joyner switched to receiver because Muschamp is hoping that another blue-chip quarterback recruit, Ryan Hilinski, can finally break the mold.
That’s the reputation that Smart is trying to avoid. It has undoubtedly cost Muschamp in recruiting battles — though he does still seem to end up with a blue-chip quarterback more times than not — and if the trend develops for Smart, that could eventually happen to him, as well.
Newman’s success means a lot for Georgia in 2020. It could also mean a lot for Smart beyond that. He made the right decision to usher in the new decade with a new offense. With the weapons Georgia has, it should spread defenses out in a way that it didn’t when Eason or Fromm were in Athens.
The best-case scenario for Smart is that by the time the 2021 NFL Draft comes along, Newman will be in the same breath as Fields … and not because someone has a joke with a frustrating punchline.
“Remember when Jamie Newman was close to Justin Fields in the way-too-early mock drafts?”