Kirby Smart finally awakens recruiting giant

Two springs ago, Kirby Smart sat in his new office at his old school, outlining a plan Georgia Bulldogs fans had heard before but needed to hear again.

Some of them wanted to hear it from a new voice, any new voice, after years of watching Mark Richt's talented but rarely elite teams fall short. Others took solace in hearing it from Smart, the son of a Georgia high school coach and a former Bulldogs safety who knows the state as well as anyone.

"My goal is to outwork everybody in recruiting," Smart told ESPN.com in April 2016, "sign the best players in the state and turn these guys into the best team we can. I'd take the state of Georgia over all the other states. That's my home base, which makes this a very good job."

On Jan. 8, Smart's old team, Alabama, prevented his new team from becoming the best in college football. But his other objective from two springs ago -- sign the best players in the state -- jibes with the class he will complete next week, one that is currently ranked atop ESPN's class rankings.

Georgia's class includes five of ESPN's top six players in the state, led by quarterback Justin Fields, the top-rated player in the country. The group continues the momentum from Smart's first full recruiting cycle in 2017, which saw ESPN's top three in-state prospects, four of the top five and five of the top eight go to Athens. Richt was no recruiting slouch and did well within Georgia's borders, but his final four classes included no more than two of the state's top five recruits and no more than four of the state's top 10, according to the ESPN rankings.

It took Smart two years to win the SEC and reach the national title game. But a scarier long-term prospect for the league, and other regional powers, is Georgia maxing out its in-state and regional recruiting operation.

Well, it's happening.

"Maxing out the talent here, not only is it a necessity but it will do wonders for being a champion," said Rome (Georgia) High School coach John Reid, who coached 2018 Georgia signee Adam Anderson. "Everyone feels [Georgia is] going to be good for a while. Kirby's just taken it to another level over there."

Winning always matters, but coaches say Smart's background and approach are the biggest drivers of Georgia's fast-tracked recruiting gains. The state has long been a national recruiting priority area -- after Texas, California and Florida, Georgia produces the most FBS players, and the per-capita numbers are even better -- but few head coaches who spend time there have Smart's knowledge of the landscape.

Richt recruited well -- Georgia reached the national title game mostly because of his recruits -- but Smart came in knowing that other schools had benefited from Georgia players. A source close to the coach said he was "relentless about keeping the best players in Georgia at home." He created an Alabama-like recruiting operation but with a much deeper local talent pool.

"He's done a great job of preaching about doing it for the state school," said Chris Slade, the coach at Atlanta-based Pace Academy, which has sent standout offensive line recruits Jamaree Salyer and Andrew Thomas to Georgia in the past two classes. "Being a Georgia guy and playing at Georgia, he can speak with a lot more conviction, as opposed to a lot of other coaches."

Fields, who played at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, decommitted from Penn State in June before pledging Georgia in early October. Although Georgia had lured top in-state recruits in the social media era, its ability to land the nation's top player, especially a quarterback, impacted other local prospects and even out-of-state recruits such as tight end Luke Ford from Illinois, the nation's No. 63 recruit. North Carolina native Zamir White, ESPN's No. 1 running back and No. 15 overall player in the class, added to the star power of Georgia's class.

"Justin came to one of [Pace's] games on [his] bye week," Slade said. "He showed up and wanted Jamaree to come block for him some day. It was a Justin Fields sighting. When you do that, it's hard to top. You're not going to get a kid from South Carolina to come over here, but Harrison High School is 25 minutes from Pace."

Georgia is starting to exploit the proximity. Many elite recruiters essentially park themselves in Atlanta during contact periods. But other than Georgia Tech, no Power 5 coaching staff can access the state's hottest areas like Smart and his staff can.

"Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, they're always going to battle," Harrison High School coach Matt Dickmann said. "But that's a big advantage for Georgia. There is so much talent from Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, all these counties."

Smart's ability to connect with high school coaches has propelled Georgia's effort. His own story as the son of a coach -- Sonny Smart coached at Bainbridge High School, near the Georgia-Florida border, and Kirby starred there before heading to Athens -- hits home for them.

Houston County head coach Ryan Crawford, who coached Georgia signee Trey Hill, ESPN's top guard and No. 22 overall player in the 2018 class, first met Smart when Crawford was a student at Valdosta State. Smart started his coaching career there as a defensive assistant.

"He doesn't big-time you when he's around," Crawford said. "He understands the importance of the high school football coach, and he lives it with his life and his dad. He also knows the state of Georgia is a hotbed."

There's also familiarity between high school coaches and Georgia's assistants, many of whom recruited the state or at least the Atlanta area for years at different stops. Slade recalls Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman recruiting Salyer and Thomas while Pittman still coached for Arkansas. Stockbridge High School coach Kevin Whitley, whose five-star defensive end Brenton Cox signed with Georgia, has known Bulldogs running backs coach Dell McGee, a longtime high school and college coach in the state, for nearly 20 years. Whitley also has known Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker since Tucker coached at Ohio State and recruited the state more than a decade ago.

"Their shirts change," Whitley said, "but they're the same guys."

The Georgia logo on those shirts is starting to carry more pull with players and even coaches. Like many coaches, Crawford wants Houston County's players to pick the college where they're comfortable, but he doesn't hide his allegiance to Georgia. "There's a lot of homers who coach in our state," he said. Georgia also resonates with high school coaches who grew up elsewhere, such as Reid, an Indiana native who has been trying to get one of his players to Athens for more than a decade.

Anderson ended up choosing from among Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. He had no obvious fan allegiance.

"What I told him is if none of them sway you, I would stay in state," Reid said.

Players pick colleges for different reasons, but Georgia's ability to put itself in the national spotlight -- alongside a program such as Clemson, which continues to pluck top prospects from the state -- has made an impact. Smart said some recruits had interest in Georgia last summer but wanted to see results in the fall. When those came, it created "a tidal wave effect to bring in some extra guys."

"I thought the staff before, they still got some top players from the state," Slade said. "Now because they're winning right away, that makes a big difference. I don't think Georgia's ever had this big of a splash."

Georgia's 2018 recruiting success will be difficult to replicate. The Bulldogs will likely land the nation's top class, led by the nation's top recruit, who happens to play quarterback, after a season in which they won the SEC championship and played for a national title in Atlanta.

"A perfect storm," an SEC assistant said.

The elements might not line up perfectly each cycle, but Georgia is sprouting up more on the local recruiting radar.

If the Bulldogs maintain this trajectory, more of their competitors will be forced to seek shelter.