There’s another chance for Kirby Smart to prove he can produce top NFL QB prospect

Here's a quick look at Kirby Smart's four seasons as head coach at Georgia.

The expectations have been set for new Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman. During an ESPN segment over the weekend, analyst David Pollack predicted Newman will be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. That could be dismissed as an ex-UGA great pulling for his school if not for the many pundits unaffiliated with UGA also projecting Newman as a first-round talent.

Mock drafts aren’t gospel because they aren’t necessarily representative of what NFL decision-makers are thinking. But they do drive outside perceptions. That view says Georgia coach Kirby Smart will have a top NFL prospect at quarterback whenever college football returns. Newman gives Smart another chance to prove he can turn out a quarterback that NFL teams want near the top of the draft.

Smart’s quarterback acumen took another hit when Jake Fromm was the eighth QB to be selected (fifth round, No. 167 overall). It will erode further if Newman, like Fromm, falls from purported top NFL prospect to waiting and waiting for his name to be called in the draft. You can imagine the reaction if that happens after UGA misses the College Football Playoff again while ex-Bulldog Justin Fields becomes a top draft pick after leading Ohio State to another CFP.

Smart did very well to entice Newman to transfer to UGA from Wake Forest. I thought it would be a tough sell. I didn't know at the time that Smart would dump James Coley and replace him with ex-NFL coordinator Todd Monken.

That made UGA a more enticing landing spot for Newman, who was among the top QBs on the transfer market. Brock Vandagriff, the elite QB recruit from Bogart, committed to UGA soon after Newman. It’s set up for Smart to make Georgia a place where quarterbacks can become coveted by the pros.

That would give the Bulldogs a chance to break through in the CFP and lead to more top QB prospects wanting to sign with them. It’s not certain that Newman has what it takes to take the Bulldogs further than Fromm. Newman is talented, but the bar is high.

Pro Football Focus gives Newman an excellent grade for passing accuracy. He'll be stepping up in competition from the ACC to the SEC, but he'll also be playing with better teammates. But, like Fromm in 2019, Newman will lead an offense short on proven production at wide receiver.

In addition, two UGA offensive linemen were drafted in the first round and running back D’Andre Swift went in the second. Newman and his new teammates will be acclimating to a new offensive coordinator. They won’t have the benefit of a full offseason regimen because of the COVID-19 disruptions.

Newman's ability to live up to his billing will be key to Georgia's fortunes in 2020. Clemson is the betting favorite to win the next CFP Championship game. Ohio State's odds are slightly lower. That's in large part because quarterbacks Fields and Trevor Lawrence give their teams an edge over the other contenders.

Nineteen QBs have started games in the CFP. Eight of those players were selected within the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Fields and Lawrence almost certainly will make it 10 in 2021. Top NFL quarterback prospects make the difference at the top level of modern college football. It wasn’t always like that, but things have changed.

The first two years of the CFP featured four marginal NFL prospects at quarterback: Alabama’s Blake Sims (undrafted), Ohio State’s Cardale Jones (fourth round), Michigan State’s Connor Cook (fourth round) and Alabama’s Jake Coker (undrafted). The past two CFP fields had only one so-so NFL prospect at QB, assuming Notre Dame’s Ian Book doesn’t make a big leap in his final season.

Explore>> Jake Fromm: What happened and what now?

Fromm was one of the overachievers. His Bulldogs bested Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in the 2018 CFP semifinal before losing to the Alabama duo of Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. The Browns drafted Mayfield No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft. Tagovailoa was the No. 5 pick last week and Hurts was No. 53.

Smart replaced Fromm with Newman, who was the best available option. Vandagriff is next in line. Once again, there are multiple QBs on UGA’s roster with the talent to become high picks in the NFL draft.

Fields left Georgia after not getting much of a chance to show what he can do. Ohio State coach/QB guru Ryan Day immediately featured Fields, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Fields, a junior-to-be, could be the first QB selected in the next draft.

I understand why Smart made the safer choice with Fromm over Fields. It's hard to say it was a terrible choice. Fromm's play regressed, but UGA won another SEC East title. Smart made the wrong decision, though, and it doesn't take hindsight to see it, given that Fields was the third-best QB recruit in the 247Sports database behind Vince Young and Lawrence.

Newman gives Smart a chance to show he’s learned how to let an athletic QB thrive. Alabama and LSU have become the top SEC programs for those kinds of QBs in modernized schemes. Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State have done the same. Georgia can do that with Newman and Vandagriff, the No. 2 dual-threat QB in his class, per 247Sports.

After losing big to LSU in last season’s SEC Championship game, Smart bristled at the notion that his desire to play “man ball” held back UGA’s offense in 2019. Smart blamed attrition, some of it unanticipated, at wide receiver. But replacing Coley with Monken was a tacit admission that UGA’s offensive philosophy played a part in the regression.

There’s also the matter that athletic quarterbacks such as Fields can create offense when plays break down. NFL teams are spending high draft picks on those kinds of QBs. Newman fits that mold. Eventually we’ll see if Smart can get the most out of him.

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