How did Kirby Smart turn Georgia into the destination for 5-star QBs?
It all started on Dec. 15, 2015.
Georgia fans knew it was an important day. Five-star quarterback Jacob Eason announced that instead of dropping his commitment to the Dawgs after Mark Richt was fired, he confirmed that he would be playing his college football a couple thousand miles from his home state of Washington to be the first face of the Kirby Smart era in Athens. Neither Florida nor Washington could steal the coveted gunslinger.
That was an important day, but not necessarily for the reasons that Georgia fans would have assumed at the time. No, Eason didn’t help the Dawgs end the 1980 jokes and became the best quarterback in program history.
But Dec. 15, 2015 marked the beginning of a trend that’s become equal parts impressive and baffling. Smart continues to fend off the masses for 5-star quarterbacks despite the fact that his track record of maximizing their 5-star talent is, well, not what his recruiting record would suggest. This past year was the first time during that Smart era that Georgia’s passing offense ranked in the top half of FBS, which only happened because one of Smart’s 5-star quarterbacks came in and averaged 308 passing yards in the final 4 games:
- 2016 — No. 97
- 2017 — No. 106
- 2018 — No. 70
- 2019 — No. 72
- 2020 — No. 45
Including JT Daniels, a former 5-star recruit who transferred from USC over the summer after highly-touted Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman joined the Dawgs, Smart signed 4 quarterbacks ranked as 5-star recruits in the 247sports composite. That number could hit 5 when it comes time for class of 2022 5-star quarterback Gunner Stockton, who flipped his commitment from South Carolina to Georgia last week.
That number doesn’t include Jake Fromm, who just missed out on ending as a 5-star recruit in the 247sports composite, nor does it include 4-star recruits Carson Beck and D’Wan Mathis.
Daniels, of course, is seeking to become the first of Smart’s 5-star quarterbacks to leave his college career as a Georgia player. Brock Vandagriff, a 2021 early-enrollee, is seeking to become Smart’s first 5-star quarterback to start and finish his college career as a Georgia player. At the earliest, that won’t happen until 2023, roughly 8 years after Smart saved Eason’s commitment.
How? And why?
It’s lazy to assume that Smart’s quarterback recruiting is simply the product of some deep, under-the-table pockets. Yes, we know that nobody in America spends on recruiting like Georgia. Smart spent $3.7 million on it in 2019. You don’t sign a No. 1 class with blue-chip talent from 9 states without breaking the bank.
There’s a philosophical question here that dates to the Eason era — how is the defensive-minded Smart so good at selling quarterbacks without any legitimate evidence of success in that area? In addition to the aforementioned subpar passing game, Fromm is the only Georgia quarterback who was drafted from one of Smart’s teams, and he was a 5th-round pick who has yet to take an NFL snap. The well-documented success of Eason and Justin Fields post-transfer is certainly at the root of that.
Of course, none of those 3 quarterbacks got to play in Georgia’s revamped passing offense under Todd Monken, which didn’t arrive until 2020. Surely that was a selling point to the likes of Daniels, Vandagriff and Stockton. It also helps when Smart can say “you’ll be surrounded by more elite talent than anywhere in the country” and truly mean it.
Since 247sports starting tracking team composite talent in 2015, here are Georgia’s yearly rankings:
- 2015 — No. 6
- 2016 — No. 6
- 2017 — No. 4
- 2018 — No. 3
- 2019 — No. 3
- 2020 — No. 1
Georgia had 16 players rated as 5-stars on its 2020 roster. In 2021, that number is expected to be at least 17. Smart can continue to say that his quarterbacks will be surrounded with future NFL players. Irrelevant it is that in this modern era of high-octane passing offenses, his was stuck in neutral for the first 4 years.
While it’s also true that blue-chip quarterback hitting the transfer portal isn’t just a Georgia trend, it’s interesting to look at the path from initial commitment through college for Smart era signal-callers:
Vandagriff, who signed with Georgia during the Early Signing Period, is the perfect embodiment of this stunning trend.
Yes, I realize he’s a Georgia native. But this belief that he simply picked Georgia to stay local doesn’t carry as much weight when he went on unofficial visits to Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee and UNC before committing to the Sooners. Of course he committed to play for Lincoln Riley. Why wouldn’t every 5-star quarterback line up for the opportunity to play for the coach who had 2 consecutive players win the Heisman Trophy and get drafted No. 1 overall.
Vandagriff’s commitment to Oklahoma came before Jalen Hurts had his Heisman runner-up season. It also came before Fromm’s frustrating junior year at Georgia. If anything, 2019 should’ve only solidified the belief that Norman was a superior destination for quarterbacks than Athens. Instead, Vandagriff dropped his commitment to Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2020, and within 3 weeks, he visited and committed to Georgia.
Don’t feel too bad for Oklahoma. Riley still signed 5-star quarterback Caleb Williams, who is actually ranked slightly better than Vandagriff and who will back up 5-star Spencer Rattler. Still, though. At some point, Smart legitimately sold Vandagriff on the belief that his future would be better at Georgia than the Heisman factory Riley built at Oklahoma (Vandagriff’s dropped Oklahoma commitment came 3 weeks before Georgia brought Monken on board to revamp the offense).
And who did it surprise? No one because this is what Smart does. Somehow.
It didn’t surprise anyone when Stockton gave his commitment to Smart last week. Well, check that. It was a bit of a surprise because Stockton seemed like a natural fit to follow Mike Bobo to Auburn after the South Carolina offensive coordinator left for the Plains after Bryan Harsin was hired.
It didn’t matter that Smart had whiffed on Stockton the first time around when he committed to South Carolina in August. It didn’t matter that he signed up to join a roster with multiple 5-star quarterbacks who have multiple years of eligibility left (don’t forget that Daniels still has 2). It didn’t even matter that Georgia is 1 of 4 SEC programs that hasn’t had a top-40 passing offense OR a quarterback drafted in the first 4 rounds in the last 5 years.
Kentucky, Vandy and Texas A&M are the others in the SEC. Nationally, there are 15 Power 5 programs that fall into that dubious category. Not including transfers or 2022 commitments, Georgia and Michigan are the only ones that have signed a 5-star quarterback, though Georgia has a 3-1 advantage there. That’s leaving out Daniels and Stockton, too.
Meanwhile, you know who has never signed a 5-star quarterback? Dan Mullen. Never mind the fact that he helped develop the likes of Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and now Kyle Trask, who led the No. 1 passing offense in college football this past season. Yet the highest-rated quarterback recruit to ever sign with Mullen during his 12 years as an SEC head coach was Emory Jones.
When Mullen was at Mississippi State, that could be chalked up to the fact that historically speaking, 5-star recruits (of all positions) hadn’t lined up to come to Starkville. One would think the tide would be turning now that he’s gone to 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowls at Florida. In addition to Trask’s season as a Heisman finalist, Florida got over the Georgia hump and did so with a passing attack that was infinitely better. All that happened since then is Georgia kept its 2021 5-star quarterback committed (and eventually signed) while Stockton gave his pledge to Smart.
If you include Stockton and 2022 commitments like Ohio State’s Quinn Ewers, here’s the breakdown of where 5-star quarterbacks signed from 2016-22:
- Georgia: 4
- Clemson: 3
- Ohio State: 2
- Oklahoma: 2
- Alabama: 2
- Auburn: 1
- Michigan: 1
- Washington: 1
- USC: 1
- Stanford: 1
- Ole Miss: 1
I mean, Georgia signed as many 5-star quarterbacks as the rest of the SEC combined. Well, that’s assuming Stockton stays committed and signs. Why wouldn’t he? Smart doesn’t lose 5-star quarterbacks until they get to campus and spend a year or 2 in the offense.
OK, Georgia fans. I’m sorry. I went 1,300 words without making that joke. Forgive me.
Sooner or later, one would think that 1 of these 5-star quarterbacks will pop and actually leave as a Georgia legend. Maybe Daniels can be that guy. Perhaps Georgia is on the brink of having its first top-40 passing offense since Aaron Murray’s senior year in 2013. By 2022, we could even see a Georgia quarterback drafted in the first 4 rounds for the first time since Matthew Stafford went No. 1 overall in 2009.
Whatever the case, 1 thing is all but a certainty — the 2-way door for 5-star quarterbacks in Athens isn’t going away anytime soon.