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Georgia's Kirby Smart holds his own against Alabama with first recruiting class

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ATHENS, Ga. – The invasion was pretty much over by noon.

It was almost back to business as usual by then at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the sparkling building that houses the offices for both Georgia’s football staff and its athletic administration. Hundreds of fans had taken the day off work and descended here, anxiously anticipating signing announcements for the Bulldogs’ 2016 class. They may not have had Ric Flair and Tom Brady at Georgia, but that was OK – the only star power these people cared about was the rankings of Kirby Smart’s first recruiting haul.

And by that measurement, this was a very good day in the remodeling of Georgia football.

By nightfall, Rivals.com ranked Smart’s 20-man class 10th, and fifth in the absurdly competitive Southeastern Conference. When looking at quality over quantity, Georgia fared better – only three schools had a higher per-player average than the Dogs’ 3.75.

Georgia's Kirby Smart answers questions during a press conference on National Signing Day. (AP)
Georgia's Kirby Smart answers questions during a press conference on National Signing Day. (AP)

But one of those, of course, was Alabama – Smart’s former employer. For the seventh time in the past nine seasons, the Crimson Tide has the No. 1-ranked class according to Rivals.

Now Smart knows what it’s like to battle his old boss, Nick Saban, on the recruiting trail. Beating him there is every bit as hard as beating him on the field.

The two longtime friends each scored some key victories in head-to-head recruiting battles. Saban held onto a pair of five-star, in-state linebackers, Ben Davis and Lyndell "Mack" Wilson. Smart flipped Powder Springs, Ga., receiver Tyler Simmons from Alabama to Georgia, and also signed in-state athlete Mecole Hardman.

But the last thing Smart wanted to talk about Wednesday was the scorecard vs. Saban.

"I don't recruit against Nick Saban,” he said. “I recruit for the University of Georgia. I've been with him for him for nine years, and I know he does the same. That's why I have the utmost respect for him. It's never about him or about me. It's about the University of Georgia or about his university.

“To me it was never a personal thing. I've been with him, I know how he recruits. I'm not going to sit there and attack him and his character when he's got four out of the last however many national championships. I don't think that's the way [to recruit]. You sell what you have. You sell your strongest points. I think that's what we sold in recruiting. It was never an attack on him because I know he's not going to do that to us."

In the brass-knuckles world of SEC recruiting, maybe there will be an element of mutual respect and cordiality between Alabama and Georgia. (If you don’t think it’s contentious out there, see Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s shots fired at Florida and Mississippi on Wednesday.) Still, the more Smart and Saban cross paths going forward, the more that bond will be tested.

The most important thing Smart did in his first weeks on the job at Georgia was to keep fired predecessor Mark Richt’s recruiting groundwork intact. And the most important element of that was keeping the nation’s No. 1 quarterback, Jacob Eason, in the fold.

That was accomplished weeks ago. The biggest victory of Signing Day for Smart wasn’t something that rolled off a fax machine; it was the guy wearing Georgia workout gear and meeting with the media as an early enrollee. Eason is one of six 2016 signees already on campus, and retaining their commitments through the coaching change was vital.

“Going in those home visits, it's a little awkward at first,” Smart said. “You're trying to sell yourself and sell the program, which is easy to sell here at UGA. I think those six staying in place gave confidence to the rest of the class that everything's good, everything's going to be OK."

Eason, a 6-foot-5 pro-style quarterback from Washington, said he’s been throwing routes with some veteran Georgia receivers already. Given the threadbare quarterback situation Smart inherited from Richt, there will be a lot of fans daydreaming about Eason starting from Day One.

Georgia early enrollee Jacob Eason takes questions from the media during National Signing Day. (AP)
Georgia early enrollee Jacob Eason takes questions from the media during National Signing Day. (AP)

Eason acknowledged that there will be high expectations.

“Every award you get, the expectation rises,” he said. “It just makes me want to work harder.”

Eason said he’s already worked hard enough in the weight room to add a new layer of muscle. Tackling that, learning a new playbook and adjusting to college life while his peers are still in high school will make this a drink-from-a-firehose semester.

Eason said tutors have replaced his mother as the homework police. He bought a scooter to get around campus and has found the way to Barberito’s, a Mexican food chain that has become a go-to spot.

Eason was asked a couple times about former Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, now with the Detroit Lions, who also was an early enrollee – Stafford became the starting quarterback about one-third of the way through his freshman season between the hedges. But Stafford wasn’t the first – it was a Georgia quarterback who pioneered early enrollment, Eric Zeier, who did it back in the early 1990s.

So there is a precedent here. And, yes, there will be an expectation on the new QB to be an instant hero.

“I’m surrounded by great people,” Eason said. “So that pressure is going to be spread out to everyone. It’s going to work out.”

Eason was the biggest get for Smart in a class that is very strong for a transition year. Now Smart just has to beat Saban regularly on the recruiting trail if he wants to knock his old boss off the SEC throne.

That's what the signing day throng that invaded campus is expecting from their new coach. No pressure.

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