New Georgia coach Kirby Smart didn’t have long to make a big impact on the recruiting trail in January.
Despite being hired by the Bulldogs back in December, the former Alabama defensive chief didn’t assume his new role full-time in Athens until mid-January after helping the Crimson Tide win another national championship.
With time working against him, Smart pieced together a staff of proven recruiters and hit the road in full force. He managed to shore up five-star quarterback Jacob Eason’s commitment and eventually signed five-star tight end Isaac Nauta.
But few signings were as important as the pair of in-state prospects the Bulldogs landed on National Signing Day.
Georgia sent a message to programs from border states by flipping long-time Auburn commit David Marshall, a three-star defensive end from Thomaston, Ga., and Alabama commit Tyler Simmons, a three-star receiver from Powder Springs, Ga.
If Smart is successful in locking down Georgia, that could spell trouble for Auburn — a program that has tapped into the talent-laden state in recent years.
While Auburn’s proximity to the Atlanta Metro area has been beneficial in past years, Phenix City (Ala.) High School coach’s Jamey Dubose has already recognized the impact Smart could have on the Tigers’ pipeline.
“Auburn has over the years gotten some great players out of Georgia being that it’s so close,” said Dubose, who coaches current Georgia and Auburn target Markail Benton. “They’ve had great success pulling a lot players in and winning those guys. I’m sure the first thing Coach Smart is going to do is recruit nationally, which is what Alabama, Auburn and anybody else in the SEC does. But at the same time, Georgia is a place if you can lock the borders and keep the good ones there, you’re winning a lot of ball games.”
In February, Gus Malzahn and his staff signed away several top Georgia prospects, including five-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown, four-star defensive tackle Antwuan Jackson and four-star receiver Kyle Davis.
That could change in 2017 and beyond.
Of the nine top prospects in the state in 2017, two have already signed with the Bulldogs (quarterback Jake Fromm and defensive back Richard LeCounte III). The remaining few, including linebacker Nate McBride and defensive back Deangelo Gibbs, two Auburn targets, are slowly gravitating towards Georgia.
“Georgia in the past was guilty of being late to the party to offer big-time elite talents like Derrick Brown, Deshaun Watson and even Raekwon McMillan,” said DawgNation recruiting analyst’s Jeff Sentell. “Other staffs could even recruit the big-time guys harder even after Georgia offered. Auburn was always a threat considering the SEC rival is so close to all the players in the Atlanta area. I don’t see that anymore. This staff is made up of relentless recruiters. Kirby Smart can lock up the borders by selling the state university and the academics at Georgia, but what’s changed is the program will make sure to offer all those in-state phenoms early and then won’t let up until they’ve signed.”
The Tigers could also face similar difficulties in recruiting in-state targets that live a short drive away from Atlanta. During his time in Tuscaloosa, Smart battled Auburn for a handful of prospects close to the state line. He developed relationships along the way in cities like Ashville, Phenix City and Birmingham, which could give him a recruiting advantage.
Tim Vakakes, a third-year coach at Jackson-Olin High School (Birmingham, Ala.), anticipates both programs will fight for recruits close to the border in the coming years.
“The east Alabama kids who are on the line or are kind of close to the Georgia line, I think (Smart’s move to Georgia) might affect them a little bit,” Vakakes said. “But I don’t know how much. It’s hard for a kid from Alabama to say no to Auburn or Alabama unless, I believe, he’s on the east side of the state.”
If past months are any indication of Smart’s ability, Georgia will experience some success. The Bulldogs are already in good standing with four-star offensive tackle Austin Troxell and linebackers Kenney Britt and Tadarian Moultry, all of whom are believed to be among Auburn’s top targets.
Britt, a three-star linebacker from Oxford, Ala., has paid close attention to UGA now that Smart’s at the helm. His interest in the program has grown considerably — less than two weeks ago, Britt named the Bulldogs his front-runner. Coincidentally, Oxford is just a little over an hour away from Georgia.
“If (Smart) can steal the upper echelon guys out of both (states), I’m sure that’ll be pretty scary for both Auburn and Alabama’s end,” said Dubose.