When the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll comes out Monday with Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs in the top five, it will be the latest sign of Georgia’s status as a national football power.
Not only for the championship contender in Athens but for a booming Peach State prep scene.
Georgia has solidified itself behind Florida, Texas and California as the nation’s clear No. 4 state in producing top-tier talent. As that state’s undisputed top Dawg, Smart’s team is the primary beneficiary.
“It's certainly been an impact on our program,” Smart said.
And that impact is coming at the expense of Florida — in more ways than one.
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Georgia’s status as a football hotbed isn’t new. Fran Tarkenton, Herschel Walker and Charlie Ward all played high school ball there.
But the Peach State has ramped up its supply of talent, beyond recent superstars like Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, Nick Chubb and Roquan Smith.
• Fifteen years ago, Georgia produced 80-100 Division I-A recruits in a class, said Rusty Mansell, a Georgia-based recruiting analyst for 247 Sports. Now that number exceeds 250.
• In 2006, Rivals’ top 250 national recruits included 14 players from Georgia. The state had 27 such players in ’19 with another 27 in this next class.
• In 2017, Georgia high schools produced more NFL draft picks (29) than any other state. Over the last five years, only Florida (165), Texas (137) and California (128) have had more players drafted than Georgia (99).
Many factors have played into Georgia’s rise. A booming population (from 6.5 million in 1990 to 10.5 million last year). A high school football participation rate that’s relatively steady compared to the nationwide decline.
And, most importantly, money.
At least 44 Georgia public high school coaches make more than $100,000 a year, according to a report this spring by First Coast News. That’s double the number from three years ago and enough to lure some of the top prep minds in the country to the pressure-packed environment.
“Anytime a job in Georgia comes open, my phone blows up from other states…” Mansell said. “Everybody wants to get into Georgia because of that pay and what they’re able to do with their community and the investments they make.”
That includes coaches from Florida.
At least a dozen of those 44 six-figure coaches came from the Sunshine State, according to First Coast News. XOS Digital’s Dwight Thomas counts almost 250 Florida prep coaches who have defected for Georgia in the two-plus decades he’s been scouting the Southeast.
“We lose more coaches coming to Georgia than anybody,” former Armwood High coach Sean Callahan said.
Callahan should know; he could have been one of them.
Powerhouse Valdosta High was among the Georgia schools who reached out to him after he led the Hawks to Class 4A state titles in 2003-04. Callahan didn’t go — he stayed at Armwood until his 2017 retirement — but said there was “a lot of money on the table.”
Valdosta’s coach earns a $35,753 coaching supplement, according to First Coast News. That’s almost 10 times last year’s head coaching stipend in Hillsborough County ($3,736).
Georgia is also investing more in infrastructure — a handful of high schools have indoor practice facilities — and educator salaries. The average teacher in Georgia made $56,329 during the 2017-18 school year, according to National Education Association. That’s the largest figure in the Southeast and $8,000 more than Florida, where most coaches also balance teaching loads.
Those things don’t create talent on their own, but they attract better coaches. Better coaches mean better coaching, which helps hone a prospect’s natural ability.
That leads to a maxim Mansell remembers hearing from a college coach: Florida players might have more raw speed and athleticism, but Georgia players are generally ready to contribute earlier.
“Yes, Florida has always had very good talent,” Callahan said, “but you kind of get what you pay for, too.”
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The Bulldogs aren’t the only beneficiary of their state’s increase in talent. Clemson has won two of the last three national titles thanks to Watson and Lawrence.
But the Bulldogs are capitalizing on it as much as anyone, widening the gap between themselves and rival Florida in the process.
Although Smart recruits nationally more than his predecessor (Mark Richt) did, Smart signed 57 homegrown players over his four consecutive top-six recruiting classes. The 89 Georgia natives on the Bulldogs’ roster includes seven preseason all-SEC honorees (including quarterback Jake Fromm and offensive tackle Andrew Thomas) and at least seven other potential starters for the SEC East favorites.
The Bulldogs are cashing in on the state’s rise because they have little internal competition. While Florida, Texas and California all have at least three major programs battling for in-state recruits, Georgia’s only other Power Five team is the rebuilding Georgia Tech. That means a lot of the state’s blossoming prospects dream of wearing red and black.
“Coming from the state of Georgia, I always wanted to play for the Dawgs,” Fromm said.
Fromm embodies the growth of Georgia as a program and football state.
He had innate talent as a top-50 national recruit at Houston County High, about 30 miles south of Macon. He had quality coaches developing that ability to prepare him to start as a true freshman. He turned down offers from Alabama and elsewhere to play for the teams he grew up watching.
And now he and his fellow Georgia-bred teammates are turning their home-state program into a power that can compete with anybody — especially their rival to the south.