With Rodney Garner's departure, is Georgia's recruiting beginning a decline?

Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

The loss of Georgia's long time recruiting director, Rodney Garner, is already proving to be a major issue for Mark Richt and Georgia. And nobody benefits from this more than Florida.

There were plenty of people making waves on National Signing Day. What else would we expect? I'm just one year older than all those kids making decisions. I understand how fun it is to play with people's minds.

Running back Alex Collins' mother, who was upset that her son chose Arkansas over Miami, grabbed his letter of intent papers and ran off with them. Linebacker Reuben Foster, who was desperate to convince Alabama fans that his Auburn tattoo was a thing of the past, and that he's a true 'Bama boy now, dressed up like Nick Saban to sign with Alabama. Safety Vonn Bell, in what was considered a huge recruiting upset by many, spurned Tennessee to play for Ohio State, just one more indicator of how far the Volunteers' program has fallen. The team that gained the most on Wednesday was, of course, Mississippi, who surged in the rankings with the commitments of Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil.

But, on the other hand, the biggest loser of the day might have been the Georgia Bulldogs. And that might be a potential warning sign for Mark Richt.

Sure, the Bulldogs' program is nice and high right now. The Dawgs are the reigning champs of the SEC East, and were a play away from being the national champion last year (sure, Notre Dame would have had more success against Georgia than they did against Alabama). But yesterday had to be one of the worst Signing Days in a long time in Athens, and the underlying reasons why are troubling ... well, for Georgia.

It all started when longtime Georgia recruiting director Rodney Garner left Athens for Auburn. That alone isn't too troublesome; Mark Richt still had two months to find a new recruiting coordinator to hold onto the verbal commitments and the kids who leaned towards Georgia. And Georgia is still Georgia, a high-profile place to go. It's certainly more attractive than Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Indiana or North Carolina, and even more appealing to kids in state. Or it's supposed to be.

But Richt then made a serious error in judgment. The first sign of trouble over the horizon for the Dawgs was when Richt refused to even consider hiring a new recruiting coordinator immediately. I understand taking time to make a hire, because you want to make sure you've got the right guy; it's better to make the right hire than the immediate hire. Richt didn't do that, and he didn't even begin the process of looking for a new recruiting coordinator.

The reason was embarrassingly simple: Richt chose to put all of his focus on the Capital One Bowl, and wait until after the bowl game to hire a new coordinator. Never mind the fact that no bowl game aside from the BCS Championship Game means anything whatsoever. The fact that Richt didn't put any importance on that vacancy, no matter the reason, is not very smart. Recruiting is a 365-day-a-year job, as Florida fans all saw: Most of our recruits committed early, and Will Muschamp got about a third of them to sign early.

That's what happens when you recruit 365 days a year: you get a stress free signing day. You simply must keep recruiting kids any chance you get to show them how much they truly mean to you, and if you back off for a second, it shows a lack of interest. There are no breaks in recruiting.

Mark Richt simply must not have gotten that memo, because over the last two months, UGA's recruiting suddenly fell off the map. Nobody knew it until today, but after all the kids announced where they would play college football, it became obvious that Georgia simply isn't the same without Rodney Garner ... or any recruiting coordinator. This was highlighted by Georgia's inability to land three players in particular that they could have really used.

Georgia's first mistake was allowing Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation and a Georgia native, to pick Mississippi without much of a fight. It's one thing for a recruit to simply want to go to a school out of state, especially when the kid's brother also plays for that team, but for the kid to not even name Georgia a finalist is a major issue.

The fact that the flagship program in Nkemdiche's own state was not in his list of top five schools is proof of one of two things: Either Richt and Georgia didn't want him badly enough and didn't show much interest, despite UGA clearly needing major help anywhere they can get it on the defensive side of the ball with 10 starters leaving, or UGA just didn't appeal to him for some reason. Neither one is a particularly pleasing thought for Georgia coaches and fans, and this was just one of a laundry list of in-state kids Georgia missed on (which I will fully cover later).

Georgia's next blunder was allowing another top-five recruit Laremy Tunsil, a longtime Georgia lean, to switch to Mississippi as well. To fail to land a top lineman when the offensive line is another of your biggest needs is a problem; when you have the "we really need you, we need help at this position and actually think you could start" line at your disposal and fail to take advantage of it, and when said top lineman was supposedly enamored with your program for a long period of time, it hurts even more.

And, finally, Georgia's recruiting staff apparently never even offered yet another top-five recruit, Carl Lawson (also from the Peach State) a scholarship. True, Garner did leave him alone while at Georgia ... but Garner then recruited him hard once he took the job at Auburn, eventually landing him.

The sense I get is that nobody else at Georgia -- not Richt, not defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, nobody -- thought enough of Lawson to even go after him on their own. A recruiting coordinator can't do 100 percent of the evaluating or recruiting. It's up to the other coaches to go out and do some of the dirty work themselves, particularly the head coach, and Georgia's failure to do so with a pair of top-flight kids from within its state is shameful.

But this is just scratching the surface of in-state kids Georgia failed to land. Georgia was loaded in the 2013 class. This past year alone, the top two defensive ends, one of the top three defensive tackles, three of the top 12 running backs, and four of the top 25 receivers in the country hailed from the state of Georgia. Georgia got none of them.

Eight of Rivals' top 100 prospects were from Georgia. Georgia got just one of them, Tray Matthews.

And Georgia did enough work to get into good position for, at one time or another, a bunch of big out-of-state prospects: Tunsil, Derrick Henry, and Matthew Thomas, all from Florida, were just a few. Georgia ended up with 14 players from outside Georgia in a 32-player class, and none were as highly-ranked as the ones in the Rivals top 100 that Georgia missed on.

Missing on top-notch local kids you didn't even bother to recruit and top-notch national recruits that appeared to lean your way but flipped when you showed an apparent lack of commitment will leave big holes on a roster.

Meanwhile, because recruiting is not a zero-sum game, Georgia's biggest rivals are happily scooping up all the four- and five-stars from that state.

Florida signed five players from Georgia, highlighted by Demarcus Robinson. But they weren't the only one to raid the Peach State: Florida's old boss, Urban Meyer, found a way to just keep sticking it to the Dawgs by snagging two of the state's top seven players for Ohio State; Auburn, with Garner's recruiting skills, walked back into Georgia and walked out with a five-star defensive end (Lawson) and a four-star defensive tackle (Montravius Adams); Mississippi took Nkemdiche, without Georgia putting up much of a fight for him, and Lavon Hooks, a highly ranked JUCO DT; Alabama stole two of the top eight running backs in the nation in Alvin Kamara, who was thought to be a 50/50 kid between UGA and Alabama, and Tyren Jones; four-star DTs Kelsey Griffin and Jay Woods went to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, respectively.

The bottom line: Florida's already established a nice pipeline to Georgia, and it appears that Ole Miss, Auburn, Alabama, and Ohio State are building theirs up as well.

This is all a suggestion that maybe this is the beginning of Georgia's downfall. Teams don't usually collapse overnight (although sometimes they do: see Florida in 2010, and Auburn the past two years). It often takes a high-flying program three years or more to fall apart, and it's happened to Richt once before.

From the beginning of Mark Richt's tenure in 2001 through 2007, his Bulldogs dominated the SEC East, winning three SEC East titles and making three BCS bBowl games. But beginning in 2008, Georgia began a slow decline. They went from 11 wins in 2007 to 10 in 2008, eight in 2009, and six in 2010.

Remember all the Georgia fans clamoring for Richt to be fired leading up to the 2011 season? How about when Georgia started 0-2 in 2011? A weak schedule (drawing Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn from the West) rendered their loss to South Carolina irrelevant, and they still won the East, despite being a weaker overall team than the top three of the SEC West.

In 2012, Georgia was clobbered by South Carolina, but thanks to six Florida turnovers and avoiding strong SEC West teams yet again, the Dawgs made it back to Atlanta. Richt had his best team since that 2007 version, and still couldn't win the SEC or get to a BCS bowl.

Georgia is a very good, not great, program, and it's been churning out teams like it since 2008. Forget the fact that Georgia has drawn the worst possible teams from the SEC West the past few years; Georgia still could have easily had five losses last year to SEC East teams alone. Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee all stayed with Georgia until the very end. And if Florida turns it over three times or less, it wins that game.

But that's with Rodney Garner's great recruiting.

Now imagine Georgia in each of those games with less talent all across the board. Think of Georgia last year (or even the last few years) without Aaron Murray, Jarvis Jones, Todd Gurley, Tavarres King and Bacarri Rambo.

That's a highly disturbing thought for Georgia fans, but that's going to become reality unless the Dawgs can start bringing in the best players from Georgia again.

I'm not saying Georgia's program is headed for the toilet just yet. But the Bulldogs have dropped off once before under Richt and they recovered just enough to win the East twice in a row, no more, while Florida was ebbing. And winning starts with recruiting, recruiting starts by keeping the best kids in state, and, in large part due to Georgia's failure to keep the best recruits in state, a merely very good recruiting class is a bust for Georgia this year.

Come fall, we'll see how much it actually matters on the field, and in the SEC East standings.

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