Perhaps, but consider all of the personnel moves in that time:
UGA juniors Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy all announced their return for their final seasons in Athens, 5-star Cartersville QB Trevor Lawrence committed to Clemson and 4-star New York City OL Isaiah Wilson picked the Bulldogs.
In that time period, three former current five-star players and three current and former four-star players decided to either stay with, pick or pick against the Bulldogs. It was like a signing day in December, and the Bulldogs went five for six.
Of the six moves, only Lawrence’s commitment to the Tigers was expected - just not at that moment necessarily. Securing his commitment would have meant that the for the first time in modern recruiting history that three 5-star QBs picked the same program in consecutive recruiting cycles - Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and then Lawrence.
But it was not to be for the Bulldogs and the talented Cartersville quarterback. Word is that Lawerence just fit or got along better with the staff at Clemson. Then again, that staff has been in place (for the most part) for some time. The same can’t be said for Kirby’s staff in Athens, which was only starting to get formed this time last year.
What was not at all expected was the return of the top four juniors to the Bulldogs for the 2017 season - particularly the two running backs. That dramatically changes the expectations for the upcoming season. Earlier this year, insiders passed along that those close to Michel were telling the Florida native his best move was to come back to school and try to ramp up his draft status as high as he could.
The 2017 NFL Draft class of running backs is loaded. Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, D'Onta Foreman, Curtis Samuel, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon and others make for a rather crowded field of ball carriers.
That, and the fact that the difference between being a second- or third-round pick and a fourth-or fifth-round pick is significant money in terms of guaranteed money, which is what the NFL is all about. Guaranteed money in the third round is a little less than $700,000; in the fifth round its around $200,000. That’s a pretty big difference.
Things were much more difficult to know with Chubb, who has always been quiet. Chubb’s return from a knee injury in 2015 further complicated matters. But most insiders assumed that Chubb would leave after his third season in Athens. After he announced his intention to stay, Chubb admitted to reporters that very much leaning towards leaving. But he decided that coming back was the best move.
“Man, this means Nick gets to be the leader of the off-season workouts,” one excited insider said. “That is huge. That’s something he’s really worked on. He’s not really naturally vocal. He’s becoming more and more of a leader that way. It also means, and I really do think this is important, that Jacob (Eason) gets an offseason where he doesn’t have to be the leader of the team as a rising sophomore. That’s asking a ton. Now Nick and Sony - and the rest of those guys… did you see all of them up there? It was a stroke of (expletive) genius from Claude (Felton) or Kirby or whoever, to visually show all of them up there together saying: ‘Hey, we are the leaders of this program now.’ It was awesome.”
Georgia had a scattered offseason last winter in terms of so many things. Would Chubb be back? Would he be back healthy? Who was the starting quarterback? Would players buy in?
Several older players, in fact, didn’t buy in. Also there was a group of players who pretty well didn’t go along with the program as soon as they realized they were being passed by players younger than them on the depth chart. I checked into that - that wasn’t the usual things folks say about a coaching transition. It really happened.
This offseason has fewer questions. Eason will be the starter; Both Chubb and Sony will be back. Buying in quite clearly seems like a problem of the past. The biggest question will be just how far this team can and will go in 2017 considering the schedule it has, and the skill players returning. The likelihood is that the team will go as far as its big players - meaning in size not name recognition - will take them. Now, too, there are many more big players to choose from. That wasn’t a luxury Kirby and company had heading into 2016.
As stated before, the return of Sony and Chubb wasn’t expected as late as midway through November. Insiders felt strongly that UGA would probably not retain either running back - certainly not both. The staff’s recruiting reflected that: trying to sign two highly-ranked backs in the 2017 class.
But the return of Chubb and Michel meant 4-star Texas RB Toneil Carter got caught up in the wash. Numbers immediately got tight as soon as all four of those juniors decided to return. The following day the Bulldogs’ recruiting got a huge boost with Isaiah Wilson’s commitment. I’m not going to say that no one saw that coming, but even more than the return of the juniors, it was an unexpected luxury (it must be pointed out, however, that the Bulldogs must retain his commitment and sign him in January and February).
Michigan was viewed as a heavy, heavy favorite heading in to the day by most. UGA felt “OK, but really don’t know” about their chances, which is usually code for - “we did what we could do, but its probably not us”.
But it turns out that Wilson’s trip to Athens in November went better than folks thought. For a long time the coaches at his high school seemed to be heavily in UGA’s camp - staying in Athens instead of going with Wilson to other schools to visit. When word started spilling out of New York City earlier in the week that Wilson was going to pick UGA, it was met with some confusion… and some skepticism.
The Bulldogs thought they were in good shape, but they were unaware they were the front runners, which it turns out they were. Wilson’s commitment set off a behind-the-scenes celebration. The Bulldogs were doing well will recruiting, but Wilson’s commitment may put them over the top in terms of what was needed for long-term success in Athens.
“I think that might be the missing piece, Dean,” said one very excited insider hours after the Wilson commitment. “I mean, I know he will be a freshman, but we’ve been missing tackles for years. Now we’ve got four in one class - two of which can probably play right now. I really think (Wilson) was the missing piece.”
Another insider was even more optimistic about the future of Wilson: “He’s going to be able to come in and start right away. You’ve got a starting tackle for three or four years with him. Yeah, he’s raw, but have you seen him play at all? It might not take him so long to get used to things.”
“They are getting all of the parts together,” said a non-UGA observer. “Again, man, I’ve said this to you before - I don’t want to be in the way of that train once it gets started rolling. And its starting to roll.”
Another long-time observer was equally as excited about the future, but more pragmatic about what the future could hold.
“I don’t give a shit if Kirby can coach or not, and by the way none of us know that he ‘can’t coach,’” he said. “He’s going to get so much talent there that if we fire him the next guy can come in and really win. You remember Richt’s best years? Most of those were with Donnan’s guys, and Donnan left his with some studs. That’s the list time the offensive line really was dominant.”
So who is next in the race to commit to the Bulldogs? Nate McBride should commit publicly before or on Christmas Day. The Bulldogs appears to have successfully fought off Alabama for DeAngelo Gibbs, but he’s still likely to announce his commitment at the Under Armour All-America game on January 1, 2017. The most fascinating recruiting saga to watch in the coming weeks is Aubrey Solomon - there’s no telling where he or his recruiting is headed coming down the stretch.