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Ashway: Dawgs’ draft bodes well for future
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

Summa cum laude.

That’s the designation bestowed upon Georgia’s 2021 national champions by the highest authority available: the National Football League.

Since the NFL adopted the seven-round draft in 1994, no team ever had 15 players selected. Until now, thus anointing the Dawgs’ championship team “with the highest distinction” label.

How amazing is this achievement? In a press conference on Feb. 2, coach Kirby Smart called the possibility of 15 players being drafted “unrealistic.”

But the draft confirmed the opinion of South Carolina coach Shane Beamer. After Georgia plucked his Gamecocks, 40-13 last September, Beamer famously observed, “They’ve got, like, a hundred five-star football players on their defense. They have a defensive lineman that weighs 340 pounds and runs better than everybody on this call. They’ve got five-star defensive backs. They’re big and physical and fast. I mean, other than that, they’re really freaking good.”

Georgia had five of those defenders selected in the first round of the draft, including the No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker. That’s the most defensive players from one school drafted in the first round since 1967. More validation for Beamer.

“That’s why they have the top defense in the country,” Beamer continued. “They’re hard to run the football on, so there wasn’t some magical scheme they came out with tonight. They’ve got five-star recruits everywhere and they play really physical. Damn!”

This draft also confirmed that Smart and his staff are getting it done, as if that was ever in doubt. “Our job is to develop them and make sure they’re better people when they leave,” Smart told the Athens Banner-Herald at Georgia’s Pro Day in March.

“I think each one of these kids will tell you they’re more successful because of the work ethic they were able to achieve here. We had some really good coaches to help them up and some really good players to help play. And I think its very unique to have this kind of collection of talent. You don’t have that every year.”

Perhaps not, but when you annually sign one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, you amass a load of talent.

Georgia dominated the draft and dominated the most dominant conference in the draft. For the 16th consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with a total of 65 players chosen. That number includes 34 of the 105 players taken in the first three rounds. The Big Ten produced 48 picks [21 in the first three rounds]. The Pac-12 and Big XII had 25 each, and the ACC finished with 21.

Georgia produced almost a quarter of the SEC’s draftees. And here’s another mind-boggler for you: The rest of the SEC East produced a total of 17 draft picks, compared to Georgia’s 15.

Now recall that the team Smart inherited in 2016 produced a single NFL draft pick [Isaiah McKenzie]. That mushroomed to a school-record nine last year. And now this.

It proves that buying into the team concept produces individual rewards. “Preseason, we had one guy who was named all-conference,” former defensive coordinator and now Oregon head coach Dan Lanning told Dawg Nation. “So that shows you what everyone knows. We had great players and talent, but they never made that their focus. They made playing well together their focus.”

“I really don’t see the players as stars,” Smart told Dawg Nation last October. “I don’t see it that way. I see it as a team without an ego. They buy in.”

That attitude filtered through the entire team. Zamir White and James Cook split time in the running back rotation last season. Neither complained. Both were drafted, Cook in the second round by Buffalo, and White in the fourth by Las Vegas.

Georgia finished with eight defenders drafted: linemen Walker, Jordan Davis and Devon Wyatt; linebackers Quay Walker, Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall; and Lewis Cine and Derion Kendrick from the secondary. My gosh, what a unit!

From the offense, beside the two running backs, wide receiver George Pickens, tight end John Fitzpatrick and linemen Justin Shaffer and Jamaree Salyer were tabbed.

Even punter Jake Camarda heard his name called.

What might this draft bode for the future? Clearly, it means that Smart has built a program that has become self-perpetuating. The NFL draft turned into a virtual Georgia infomercial, a fantastic recruiting tool. If you’re a good high school player and your goal is to make it into The League, Georgia’s the place to go to get you there.

We can support this notion with a few more numbers. In his first six seasons at Alabama, Nick Saban’s teams produced 33 NFL draft picks. In his first six seasons, Smart’s produced 45. Saban produced 14 first-round picks; Smart produced 12.

Their records tell you why: Saban went 68-13 overall, and 39-9 in the SEC. Smart went 66-15 overall, 40-9 in the SEC. Of course, where it counts most, Saban had three national titles. But Saban didn’t have to knock off a dynasty already perched on top.

Smart has but the single natty. For the moment. If recent history is any indicator, more should be on the way.