Georgia Bulldogs mastering the art of the transfer

Lawrence Cager is not alone.

A graduate transfer receiver from Miami, Cager captured a lot of attention Saturday for his impact in Georgia’s 24-17 win over then-No. 6 Florida, and deservedly so. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Baltimore resident led the Bulldogs with seven receptions for 132 yards, including a victory-clinching 52-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The performance marked a triumphant return for Cager, who had missed the previous two games with a separated shoulder. He heads into Saturday’s game against Missouri as Georgia’s leading receiver and restores the Bulldogs’ confidence in their passing game, which had waned in his absence.

In the wake of it all, Georgia fans might be left to wonder where their team might be without Cager. It is a scary thought, for sure, for he could be completing his eligibility with the Hurricanes.

Cager is not the only transfer paying dividends for the Bulldogs. Also executing critical plays in win over Florida – including arguably THE most critical play – was tight end Eli Wolf. Wolf had two receptions against the Gators, but none bigger than the 22-yard catch on third-and-7 that allowed the Bulldogs to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.

There were other – if slightly more conspicuous -- contributions from first-year transfers against Florida, as there have been throughout the season:

  • Cornerback D.J. Daniel, a junior college transfer from Georgia Military College, made his fifth start of the season and contributed significantly to keeping the Gators' high-octane offense grounded.
  • Junior Jermaine Johnson, who transferred this summer from Independence (Kan.) Community College, had three tackles as a backup outside linebacker and played kick coverage on special teams.
  • Perhaps the most important contribution made by a first-year player this season has been made by Steven Mixon. A graduate transfer out of Mercer, Mixon has been flawless as the Bulldogs' long snapper all year.

None of this is happenstance. While no program can ever be certain how a transfer might work out, the Bulldogs are deliberate and meticulous about exactly whom they target to join the program. In the age of the transfer portal, the best players looking to move often have several options to consider.

As for Cager, the Bulldogs were approached by and approached other receivers in the aftermath of several underclassmen at the position deciding to enter the NFL draft after last season. Smart didn’t name names, of course, but they passed on several.

They knew they wanted Cager from the jump.

“We had a couple (receivers) reach out, but either it wasn’t a comfortable marriage or we didn’t know if they were going to be able to contribute,” Smart said. “It's a tough decision because you’re betting on this guy, and we haven’t been 100 percent. We’ve had guys that came in here and didn’t play as graduate transfers. You’re looking for the right fit, and we just felt comfortable that it was the right fit with (Cager).”

Georgia had an inside track on Cager because he was recruited to Miami and was coached there by current offensive coordinator James Coley. Cager also played for the Hurricanes under Mark Richt, who had also recruited him for UGA, and Cager was recruited out of high by Alabama when Smart was there.

Ultimately, those relationships brought Cager to UGA.

“It was coach Coley and coach Smart,” Cager said Monday. “Getting the opportunity to play with them was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At the same time, getting to be a part of this team and having Jake (Fromm) as a quarterback, I couldn’t have picked a better situation."

Fromm was a factor for Wolf, too, when he was looking to leave Tennessee. He said who was playing quarterback was going to be important. That, and the fact that the Bulldogs were expected to contend for a championship.

Wolf mentioned that in the aftermath of his first Georgia-Florida experience Saturday.

Playing in such games was “super meaningful” in his decision to join the Bulldogs, he said.

“Top-10 matchup, SEC game, big-time rivalry, neutral site,” Wolf said. “It doesn’t get much better than that. So, yeah, that was huge.”

Georgia has had a few whiffs, as Smart mentioned. Defensive lineman Jay Hayes from Notre Dame last year didn’t end up being the boon that was expected.

But there have been far more transfer successes. That senior captain and safety J.R. Reed came from Tulsa may have been forgotten by some. Defensive back Maurice Smith followed Smart from Alabama and started every game in 2016 before heading to the NFL. Punter Cameron Nizalek was an incredible find out of Columbia for the Bulldogs’ run to the national championship game in 2017.

Smart credits Georgia’s support staff for making the difficult decisions on what transfers to pursue. It’s something that Marshall Malchow, the Bulldogs’ director of player personnel, is always researching.

But no matter how much legwork Georgia or any program does, they can never be sure if a transfer’s skill set and personality is going to mesh. As good as they felt about Cager, there some doubts with Cager as well.

“He was the one that made the most sense,” Smart said of all their receiver considerations. “But I’d be lying if I said I knew what to expect. I knew his size, that he matches up well with Jake, things he does well. But it wasn’t like he had an unbelievable camp. We were like, ‘Shoot, is this guy going to be the guy, or is he going to be one of the guys?’ But he’s emerged as a really good player for us.”

As have a few others.