UGA wins another signing day, but change is needed

Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart talks about the changes to the offense coaching staff during National Signing Day announcements. (Video by Chip Towers/AJC)

Georgia always shines on signing day. This first Wednesday in February was no different. The Bulldogs claimed the consensus No. 1 spot, which gives fans/alums something to celebrate, not that recruiting success has yielded a national title since 1980, when Herschel Walker signed not in February but on Easter Sunday.

Under Kirby Smart, here’s where Georgia’s recruiting classes have ranked, per 247Sports — sixth, third, first, second and now first again. Under the same Smart, the Bulldogs have won the SEC East three years running. They took the 2017 SEC title. They played for the national championship in January 2018. They’re 36-7 over the past few years, in which they finished third, fifth and fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings. They’re again relevant.

» MORE: Georgia's 2020 recruiting class

They are, however, coming off the least satisfying season of the past three. We won’t recall 2019 for the victories — nice though wins over Notre Dame, Florida, Auburn and Baylor were — but for the two losses. One was an unthinkable home reversal against a South Carolina team that would lose five of six thereafter. The other was a comprehensive thumping by LSU in the SEC title tilt, after which the master recruiter did an odd thing. He suggested his highly rated recruits, at least on offense, weren’t good enough.

(Note: Among those offensive players were tailback D’Andre Swift and offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, who figure to be NFL first-round picks; quarterback Jake Fromm and tackle Isaiah Wilson could be Round 2-3 draftees.)

From Smart on Dec. 7: "You have an offense that's built around the players you have. You take the players you have and use your strengths. With the players we have, we have certain strengths. We usually have good pass protection. We have a good offensive line. We've got good backs. But our ability to run the ball has not been consistent this year, and people can say, well, 'Coach Smart wants to play man ball.' Coach Smart wants to WIN. We threw the ball 42 times ... It's not a matter of what's your offensive philosophy. It's what's the best way to win the game."

Georgia lost to LSU 37-10. We stipulate that LSU thumped a lot of folks last season. (Though Alabama and Clemson didn’t lose by 27 on a neutral field. For that matter, neither did Auburn or Florida.) Noteworthy in the LSU game was what had been apparent all season: For all its talent, Georgia’s offense was pedestrian. It finished 61st among 130 FBS teams in total yards, 47th in passing efficiency.

» ALSO: Bulldogs add 5-star offensive tackle

The scores of its four most important victories were of a piece — 23-17, 24-17, 21-14 and 26-14. In a sport where the past two championships have been won by a team scoring 40-plus points on a Monday night in January, that won’t cut it.

The failure of the O-line — billed in preseason but never thereafter as the Great Wall of Georgia — was evident. The Bulldogs ranked 41st nationally and fifth in the SEC in rushing. Line coach Sam Pittman exited to become head coach at Arkansas; whispers hold that he'd been encouraged to find another job.

Georgia Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart talks to the media Wednesday about the offensive changes in store for the team next season. (Video by Chip Towers)

James Coley, who became offensive coordinator after Jim Chaney bolted for Tennessee last winter, lasted one year. Smart hired Todd Monken, most recently the OC for a failed Cleveland Browns season, with Coley still on staff. Coley subsequently left to coach tight ends at Texas A&M; Marshall Malchow, Georgia's director of player personnel, also jumped to the Aggies.

Georgia fans live in hope that Monken and Matt Luke, who replaced Pittman after being fired by Ole Miss after three years as head coach, will have the sort of transformative effect on the Bulldogs that Joe Brady, imported from the New Orleans Saints, had on LSU and Joe Burrow. That seems a reach, but hey, hope is cheap. Anyone seeking insight into how Georgia's presumably revamped offense will look came away from Smart's signing-day briefing unenlightened.

“I think everybody wants to hear some grand speech (about) opening this up,” he said. “What we need to do is be consistent and have explosive plays.”

Also: “The roles on the 2020 staff aren’t complete.”

So yeah. Rally around that, folks.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the master recruiter needs to field a better offense next season or else be tagged as Just A Recruiter. The 2017 Rose Bowl team was nicely coached; last year’s offense was not. It’s possible that Smart made the same mistake his mentor made — compiling a staff loaded with demon recruiters but light on actual coaches. Nick Saban took steps last year to correct his mistake; the swapping of Monken/Luke for Coley/Pittman could have a similar effect here.

Georgia just went an unsatisfying 12-2. Smart’s early success has made it so that anything short of a national title will disappoint, which might be unfair but is also the nature of the beast. If you recruit big, you’d better win big. Smart hasn’t yet won big enough.

It bears noting that the recruiter whose first three classes included Jacob Eason, Fromm and Justin Fields will enter 2020 banking on Jamie Newman, lately of Wake Forest, for his quarterback. Of grad transfers, Smart said: “These kids understand what they want; they’re very driven by what they want.”

Burrow was a grad transfer. The past three Heisman Trophy winners were transfers. It can and has happened. Maybe it will happen for Georgia.

Said Smart: “You being able to reinvent yourself and develop your players is what’s going to set you apart.”

For the first time under Smart, the Bulldogs could stand some reinvention. Given this No. 1 class, they can’t cry hunger in terms of talent. Let’s see how they are at coaching.

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