ATHENS, Ga. — Kirby Smart didn’t make a grand entrance. The man that so many Georgia fans had come to see just walked out of the stairwell, briefly acknowledged the huge cheer, then put on a microphone and commenced with the interview.
Smart didn’t speak directly to the crowd, as his predecessor normally did on national signing day. None of the few hundred fans — about a handful more than in previous years — seemed to mind.
There may have been some subtle changes to how Georgia did its first signing day under Smart. But the final result — for now, pending one more big target — was about the same as it usually was under Mark Richt.
“Today, for me — for you guys it may be about stars and rankings — to me about it’s about new Bulldogs, new members of the family,” Smart said.
For those who do care: Georgia ended the day ranked seventh nationally and fourth in the SEC in the 247Sports Composite, which takes into account the ratings of the four major recruiting outlets. That will change if five-star athlete Demetris Robertson, who remains uncommitted, signs later.
Either way, there are a couple of contexts in which to look at Smart’s first class.
Compared with almost any other first-year coach, it was an unusually strong class. Last year Florida finished 22nd nationally in Jim McElwain’s first year. Nick Saban’s first class at Alabama was 10th.
The caveat: Georgia already was on the way to a strong class when Richt was fired. It was ranked third nationally on the day he was fired. Smart ended up holding on to most of it — 11 of the 20 signees committed under Richt — and on Wednesday he signed defensive back-receiver Mecole Hardman, a five-star who was leaning heavily to Georgia before Richt’s firing.
“When Mecole signed that was a big deal for me,” said Jacob Eason, the five-star quarterback who enrolled last month. “And we had a couple other guys.”
But Georgia couldn’t close the deal on two major in-state targets: five-star defensive lineman Derrick Brown (who signed with Auburn) and four-star offensive tackle E.J. Price (USC), both of whom the former staff had been in good shape with.
The loss of Price was the surprise of the day, as he had been thought to be favoring the Bulldogs for a while. Losing Brown, the top-rated prospect in the state, to Auburn hurt, though Georgia did Wednesday flip another defensive lineman, David Marshall, away from Auburn and reeled in Michail Carter.
“To say you’ll get them all, I don’t think that’s realistic,” Smart said. “It’s a state that’s attacked by so many because it’s got Atlanta and it’s got a network to get out and go to the other places.”
Smart and his new staff did add five signees who were off Georgia’s radar: receivers Tyler Simmons and Riley Ridley, defensive linemen Marshall and Carter and punter Marshall Long.
Ultimately, that may be how Smart’s first class is judged. That, and the fact he was able to hold on the biggest of them all, Eason.
“Keeping Jacob a part of this class was critical,” Smart said. “(It) showed momentum, showed confidence in our program and the University of Georgia.”
But Smart also acknowledged the weaknesses of the class. He wants more offensive linemen, after signing only three and missing on Price. New offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was handed a three-year contract and $650,000 annual salary, will be charged with adding more size in the 2017 class.
This year’s class includes 20 players, though it could have been more if Smart had decided to throw more offers out. Instead he elected to save some for next year, taking the long view.
But perhaps Smart, if stung by the signing-day losses, can take heart in Georgia’s past: Richt’s most productive recruiting class ended up being his first: David Pollack, Thomas Davis, D.J. Shockley, Odell Thurman and Greg Blue all signed in 2001 — and that also came with Richt joining the team late.
Those guys weren’t very highly rated. This year’s class has three five-stars. One of them, tight end Isaac Nauta, said Wednesday he was following it like everyone else, particularly the additions of Hardman and Carter.
“I think we got a really good class, and I don’t know what we finished. It’s definitely top 10,” Nauta said. “We’re just excited to get everybody here and get rolling.”