Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart looks back as he walks off the field at the Georgia football game against South Carolina in Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. The Bulldogs fell to the Gamecocks with a score of 17-20, marking the first loss of the season. (Photo/Gabriella Audi,

All but one of head coach Kirby Smart’s 20 committed recruits from the class of 2021 signed with Georgia on Wednesday, the first of college football’s Dec. 16-18 early signing period. In a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon, Smart discussed managing COVID-19-related recruitment changes, dealing with new roster management challenges and finding a 50-50 split between in-state and out-of-state signees.

A weird year

The recruiting process looked different for most of 2020. COVID-19 forced the NCAA to prohibit in-person recruitment on March 18, and the association most recently extended the dead period through April 15, 2021.

Online communication over the past eight months didn’t change everything, though. Phone and video calls have always been part of the equation, and Smart said he’d seen most if not all of the recruits in-person at past high school competitions or Georgia camps. 

The biggest drawback, Smart said, was not being able to make house calls to meet players’ families or host them for home games in Sanford Stadium.

“There’s not as much attachment,” Smart said. “In four years, two years, one year — are we going to be dealing with more transfer because there’s not that relationship?”

Smart managed to put together a top-tier recruiting class despite the pandemic, but another 2020 change still clouds his 2021 roster outlook. The NCAA granted all fall sports athletes an extra year of eligibility on Aug. 21, which means every Georgia senior, including fifth-years, has the option to return next season.

Although returning seniors won’t add to Georgia’s 85-scholarship limit for the 2021-2022 season, that provision won't go into effect until fall 2021, according to the NCAA's Aug. 21 decision.

In the meantime, Smart said he expects up to 16 class of 2021 recruits to enroll at Georgia come January. To take advantage of spring practices, those early enrollees will need scholarships currently held by upperclassmen.

Smart said he’ll have a clearer picture of his team and its scholarship situation by mid-January, when juniors looking to the 2021 NFL Draft and seniors who may return have likely made their decisions.

“It’s definitely taxing in terms of numbers in and numbers out,'' Smart said. “So it’s very different for us. But with 16, it makes it even more trying.”

‘Get the groceries’

Aside from allocating scholarships, pending upperclassmen decisions make it hard to get the full picture of Georgia's roster needs next fall. Smart and his staff have until national signing day on Feb. 3 to fill any roster gaps that might open between now and then.

“We get the groceries before we know what we need,” Smart said.

Georgia signed nine offensive and 10 defensive recruits Wednesday. Smart was especially pleased about his four incoming offensive linemen. Three rank among Smart’s top eight signees, including his five-star crown jewel Amarius Mims. A 6-foot-7 powerhouse, Mims is the highest-rated player in Smart’s class and the No. 1 recruit from Georgia, according to the 247Sports Composite list.

Despite acquiring some top talent at the position, Smart named only one of the O-line quartet by name Wednesday. He said three-star Jared Wilson out of Clemmons, North Carolina, was an early recruiting target for Georgia and touted both the 6-foot-4 guard’s physique and his work ethic.

“I say it every year: [For] offensive linemen, it’s really hard to come in and play,” Smart said. “I’m really excited about this group. They’re athletic, they’ve got great size [and] they’re really bright kids.”

Beyond the O-line, Georgia added two receivers, three cornerbacks, four linebackers and three defensive linemen along with a handful of others. But the signee who’s perhaps generated the most buzz from Georgia faithful is five-star quarterback Brock Vandagriff. 

Georgia’s last two five-stars at the position — Jacob Eason and Justin Fields — didn’t stick around long. Still, Smart said having a perennially competitive team cuts through any nagging questions about how he’s developed, or not developed, quarterbacks in the past. 

“If you’re putting yourself in the conversation to be able to win championships, it’s going to put you at the forefront of every quarterback in the country’s list.”

While Smart was pleased with the talent he’s lined up for next season, it won’t be until a couple of weeks into the new year that Georgia knows where its weak spots are. 

A home-grown group

Smart acknowledged Wednesday that his professed philosophy of taking care of in-state recruits first hasn't always happened. His previous two classes come to mind — only 13 of Georgia’s 49 enrollees from the classes of 2019-2020 were in-state.

This year, he can credibly claim to be a Georgia-first recruiter. Half of Smart’s current incoming class comes from Georgia high schools, which he chalked up in part to the pandemic making recruits want to stay closer to home. Another part, Smart said, is that in-state prospects have watched Georgia go 51-14 over the past five seasons.

But Smart said he’s not necessarily looking to increase his in-state percentage every year. To him, character traits like self-motivation and perseverance carry more weight than someone’s hometown. He said COVID-19 has only clarified that point for him.

“Now, in our society, it’s much easier to give up, quit, move on, not like it tough,” Smart said. “So, when things are even, I’m picking the ones who like it tough.”