At Georgia, Smart builds a hedge against those players leaving early

News came Friday that Georgia’s three leading pass catchers from 2018, as well as one sledgehammer of a 1,000-yard rusher, were leaving early to chase the NFL dream. Also, the world’s most famous backup college quarterback officially declared he was transferring north. 

And the reaction has been, well, muted. No martial law was declared. No boil-water orders given. If there was public panic, the public hid it very well.  

This is the Bulldogs paradigm of 2019, the new normal under Kirby Smart. With each new Georgia recruiting class that is ranked among the best in the land there comes both the certainty that players of the rank of Justin Fields will grow restless and transfer out as well as the assumption that the Bulldogs will be able to survive such losses quite nicely.

Not to minimize the contributions of players like running back Elijah Holyfield, tight end Isaac Nauta, wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley – who all announced they will be leaving early to pursue the NFL. But in just a few short years, Smart has created one of those most rare of programs with a starfish roster. As in, when it loses an arm, it by its very nature regenerates another.      

The comings and goings of talent do not seem so jolting as they may have in the past. When you recruit to the level that Georgia is, you are not as susceptible to extremes based on the decisions of a handful of 20-year olds. There is a steadiness to what the Bulldogs have going now, like long-burning candle in a world of firecrackers. 

It might not be a completely accurate reaction, but it is almost an article of faith now that Georgia can plug any hole. We’ll see.

All four of Georgia early departures may well have benefited from one more year in school. Certainly fans can pause to mourn the future dynamic play gone unmade by Hardman, but they feel no need to turn it into a full-blown wake.

On another hand, in another case, who’s to say Holyfield could duplicate the one notable season he authored at Georgia in 2019, or even if he would have the chance to? Because there is a James Cook behind him. And a Zamir White returning from injury.

Brandon Adams of pointed out that nearly two-thirds of the teams that lost at least four players early to the NFL in the last five years (19 of 30) also lost more games the following season. Significantly more games – an average falloff of 2.6 wins from the year before.

Certain programs are exempt from feeling such pain. Alabama lost a dozen players  to the NFL last year and look where it is now. Prior to Clemson winning it all in 2016, it lost nine players to the NFL. These two schools are practically feeder programs for the league and they only seem to get stronger. 

That is exactly the company Smart and Georgia are wanting to keep. If the Bulldogs are overly affected by what happened Friday, they aren’t who we thought they were.   

The fact that Friday’s announcement of so many play-makers departing early did not seem the spell the end of anything for the Bulldogs – unheard was the sound of a single window closing – was a good sign.    

It’s all a matter of being built to survive the erosive properties of success. That wasn’t always the case at Georgia. But it is now. 

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.