ATHENS — Coach Kirby Smart describes his 8-5 debut season as Georgia’s coach as “pretty average.”
That record won’t consistently satisfy Bulldogs fans.
Then again, the 2016 finish might have been as good as Georgia’s talent would allow. Smart believes the talent he inherited wasn’t good enough to deliver the championship fans want.
“I pretty much knew what was here and I knew the expectation level was here, and I also knew the expectation didn’t necessarily meet the quality of players that were here,” Smart said Monday before the first practice for the 2017 season. “I think that’s indicative of what the NFL thought of our roster last year.”
Georgia had only one player, wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, selected in the NFL draft from Smart’s first team.
Smart knew those expectations weren’t going down, so the talent level had to move up. It was time to recruit better players.
Georgia’s recruiting class this year was rated No. 3 in the nation in 247 Sports final composite rankings.
The recruiting class and the decisions by tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to return for their senior seasons were among the reasons Georgia was picked to win the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division by SEC media.
More expectations that Georgia will be better in Smart’s second season.
“That’s what we’re working toward,” said senior tight end Jeb Blazevich. “I sure hope we are. We’re trying to go in that direction.”
Smart said the Bulldogs must improve in every area.
“For every statistic, we have a goal,” he said. “We didn’t reach many of those. Now, do you change your standard? Do you change your goals so you can make them? Or do you say, oh well, we’re not going to be very good in this area, we’ll lower it. No, the standard is what it is, and we have to try to get to that point.”
There are reasons to expect improvement:
— The team’s top three rushers return, including Chubb and Michel, who combined for almost 2,000 yards rushing in 2016. Chubb and Michel returned for their senior seasons instead of entering the NFL draft, as had been expected.
Chubb trails only Herschel Walker on the school’s career rushing list.
One year ago, Chubb was returning from major knee surgery and Michel was recovering from a broken forearm. Now, each is healthy to provide a solid base for the offense.
— The team’s top five tacklers return, including junior linebacker Roquan Smith. Smart was so impressed with Smith’s leadership, even in spring practice when Smith was held out of contact due to a shoulder injury, that he brought the junior to SEC media days this summer. That honor usually is reserved for seniors.
— Quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to improve as a passer and a leader in the huddle in his second season. Eason started the last 12 games as a freshman last season. He had mixed results in the spring game.
Freshman Jacob Fromm will push Eason. Brice Ramsey announced plans to transfer before changing his mind after spring practice, and his return helps depth at quarterback.
— Even though the offensive line lost three starters, there is better depth, following a recruiting emphasis at the position.
Smart said a top priority of preseason camp will be special teams. He confirmed signing wide receiver and return specialist Ahkil Crumpton from Los Angeles (Calif.) Valley College as a late addition to the team. Crumpton may replace McKenzie, who was last season’s top return threat before he was a fifth-round draft pick by Denver.
“We combed the country looking for an elite returner,” Smart said. “… We think he upgrades our roster.”
NOTES: Smart said two 2017 signees, OLB Robert Beal of Lawrenceville, Georgia and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt of Decatur, Georgia, are not yet cleared to join the team. Smart said efforts by the two to meet NCAA qualifying standards are an “ongoing process.” … Former Georgia and Cincinnati Bengals LB Odell Thurman is a new intern on the strength staff.