Photo courtesy of ESPN

Q&A: Tom Luginbill talks UGA’s title aspirations, recruiting

Former Georgia Tech quarterback and ESPN National Recruiting Director Tom Luginbill spoke at the Touchdown Club of Atlanta’s first meeting of the season Wednesday night.

The club is a “501c3 group that supports high school football in Atlanta, Georgia and the nation,” according to its website. It will hold several meetings throughout the season and feature a number of guests, with the first being Luginbill.

Luginbill spoke for over an hour about all things college football (but mostly local teams). He fielded questions from the audience and revealed his prediction for the College Football Playoff teams, the same as last season’s results: Alabama, Clemson, Washington and Ohio State. He called Stanford his surprise team, and suggested a Heisman Trophy campaign for Florida State safety Derwin James isn’t crazy.

Afterward, Luginbill sat down with the AJC to discuss Georgia football.

A few weeks ago, you said you can’t see Georgia winning a national title in the next five seasons. Could you elaborate?

Until they get a solidified guy that can change the face of their offense, then they can get better everywhere else, but without that component at quarterback; listen, the jury’s still out on (Jacob) Eason. The kid was a true freshman last year, and they weren’t very good around him. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. My concern is they’re not very athletic. If you told me that Georgia was getting (top high school quarterback recruit) Justin Fields (who Luginbill called the “next Deshaun Watson”), my answer to that question would be a dramatically different one. I think that’s how good that kid is. So it’s not so much if they can build themselves into a national-title contender as a roster, it’s whether or not they’re going to be a national-title contender at quarterback.

Some criticism of Kirby Smart refers to him as “Will Muschamp 2.0.”

I think it’s unfair. Now all of a sudden (Muschamp) has a quarterback in Jake Bentley. He hit on one. If you hit on a quarterback it changes everything, whether you’re an offensive guy or a defensive guy. South Carolina, that was a 4-8 roster at best, and his presence got them to a bowl game. That’s how big of a difference a quarterback makes. So I think in fairness, let’s see what they do with some of the kids they’re recruiting, if Eason becomes the guy they’re hoping he’ll be. And if he doesn’t, then they’ve got to go in another direction.

We’ve talked a lot about Eason. Where do you want to see him improve, supporting cast notwithstanding?

I want him to show that he can take more of the load of the offense on his shoulders. Where the coaches can trust that when a play is called, he knows what’s coming, he knows if he’s got to check out of it, he sees things, the game has slowed down. Last year, he was just dropping back and guessing. Things were moving so fast. They weren’t asking him to do a lot, but he didn’t have a lot of help. So I want to see him take that next step where, OK, maybe the personnel around you is not where we want it to be yet, but it’s my job as the quarterback to be so good in the other areas – to know where my go-to is, where’s my hot route, where’s my side-adjustment, this coverage tells me to do this; none of that stuff was happening for him a year ago. So being a student of the game, and elevating his knowledge of the offense and capability of being able to run it from the field, is the next step I want to see from him.

Last weekend in October, in Jacksonville (Florida vs. Georgia), will that determine who plays in Atlanta?

It could. I still don’t think Tennessee’s out of it. I think Tennessee may be a little bit of a surprise team. … They might’ve been a 10-, 11-win team last year. So a lot of that roster is still back. Listen, if Florida finds a quarterback, they’re the best team on that side (of the conference). Because they have the best players at all the other spots.

What do you think of the upcoming class?

I think the bottom-half of Georgia’s class is what I term to be a highly developmental portion of the class. And I don’t mean that to take on a negative connotation. I mean, there are guys in that class that are really good redshirt, two years from now could be a completely different guy type of player. But then there’s the guys like (receiver) Kearis Jackson who could be impact players, and could be on either side of the ball. So there’s a little bit of a mix.

Why has the SEC struggled to produce quarterbacks?

Maybe it hasn’t been so much of a struggle as it’s been every week you’re playing someone who’s so dang good on defense. That’s the difference with the Big 12. Everybody talks about all these numbers, guys throwing for all these yards. They ain’t playing anybody on defense, so of course the numbers are going to be inflated. When Will Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at Texas, he’d just coached at LSU and Auburn, I asked him what’s the difference between this conference and the SEC. … He said the difference is in our conference, there’s two teams that can rush the passer with four guys: us and Oklahoma. In the SEC, there’s six. I think the quarterback position’s been, to some degree, to some minute percentage, a little bit overblown. It hasn’t been great, but I just think they’ve been up against such a defensive wall. It’s just not an easy league to play quarterback in.

We’ve always talked about the SEC versus everybody else. In your mind, how much has the gap closed between it and the other conferences?

I think the gap’s closed between the SEC and the ACC. I think you can really only look to one team right now in the Big Ten that you could sit there and say OK, that team looks like Alabama, or that team looks like Clemson. That’s Ohio State. But with the SEC and the ACC, the player pool that they’re drawing from is the same. The quarterback play in the ACC elevated the perception of the teams in the conferences. They started winning more. They’re a little bit more exciting. You had some high-profile names … That’s really been the significant difference. The quarterbacks have kind of balanced it.

I still think because of the player pool that the ACC and SEC draw from, and for whatever reason, all the best defensive linemen by and large – Myles Garrett was a Texas kid – have come from the Southeast … That’s what’s kept both of those conferences at or near the top. I don’t think you’ll see enough of those guys leaving this region to flood the Big Ten or the Big 12. They’re just not going to do it.

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