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Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Georgia’s Smart recruiting at Saban’s level. Can he get as much out of his freshmen?

The story, as GQ tells it, goes that Nick Saban, in the days after winning the 2012 national championship, complained that the game “cost me a week of recruiting.” Another tale, as told to Forbes, has it that after Alabama athletic director Mal Moore hired Saban, he told the AD that he didn’t get the best coach in the country. 

“But you got the best damn recruiter that ever lived,” Saban said. 

(According to SI’s version of the meeting, Saban also told Moore: “I’m nothing without my players.”)

I like that Saban, perhaps the best college football coach ever, understands this. His career confirms it: Saban’s Dolphins teams went 15-17 before he scurried back to college, where he can stockpile more talented players than anyone else. 

This seems obvious, but it sometimes gets lost amid the coach worship prevalent in college football. It is not lost on Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former Saban assistant, who offered this perspective on Monday while discussing his career path. 

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“I learned a long time ago when you take a job, you need to have proximity to players and you need to be able to have better players,” Smart said Monday “because the coaching part can be overrated.” 

The perception is that Bulldogs now have at least as many good players as the Crimson Tide, who outlasted them in the CFP Championship game. Smart signed a very good class in 2016 and an even better one in 2017. He then landed the top-ranked class this year, considered one of the best ever, to break Alabama’s streak of seven consecutive years at the top. 

Recruiting isn’t the only factor in building and maintaining championship programs, but it’s the most important one. That’s one reason why Georgia looks built for long-term success. But, increasingly, the returns from elite recruiting are immediate, and that’s another area in which Saban has set the standard. 

Everyone remembers how Alabama’s comeback in the title game was spurred by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But he wasn’t the only five-star freshman giving Georgia fits. So did running back Najee Harris and wide receivers DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III.  

The Bulldogs countered in that game with quarterback Jake Fromm, who was big in the first half. But their other blue-chip freshmen couldn’t make a similar impact. 

This season some Georgia freshmen from the celebrated recruiting class could make a difference.  Players are raving about running freshman running back James Cook. There are a few freshmen on defense who could be play a lot, including five-star cornerback Tyson Campbell. 

But the biggest name among Georgia’s incoming recruits is, naturally, the quarterback. Justin Fields may or may not play against Austin Peay on Saturday — Smart wouldn’t say — but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a real look before the Bulldogs go to South Carolina next week.

Smart’s mantra is that every position, including quarterback, is open for competition. He started freshman Jacob Eason at quarterback in 2016, but that’s when Greyson Lambert was the alternative. Fromm didn’t start until Eason was hurt, then quickly took over the gig. 

Fields has done well with the “academic element” of playing quarterback, Smart said, leading to good decisions. 

“Now, he has to continue to improve (and) so does Jake,” Smart said. “They've both got to get better because, for us to go where we want to go, we may have to put more burden on those two guys.” 

It’s a big weight for a freshman to carry. It took Saban a game to realize that freshman QB Jalen Hurts should start for the Tide in 2016. Hurts has played in three national title games. In the last one, another freshman QB replaced him. 

When you get a bunch of top recruits it stands to reason that some of them will be good enough to play immediately, even in the SEC. LSU played 20 freshmen early in 2017 and started three against Mississippi State in the SEC opener. The Tigers took a beating in Starksville before rallying to finish 6-2 in the West. 

Saban has leaned on freshmen while chasing titles. He has more room for error because he gets so many good prospects, but his fabled eye for young talent is a big part of it. 

Now Smart is pulling in the same caliber of recruits as Saban. That’s according to the recruiting rankings, which provide an accurate picture of talent at the macro level. The expectation is that, as those players gain experience, they will form the core of many Georgia championship contenders to come. 

We’ll see if Smart, like Saban, can turn some of those top recruits from the nation’s best class into star freshmen.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.

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