What Georgia did with Branden Smith against South Carolina on Saturday helped them win the game against Gamecocks. But it may have also helped them win over minds of some recruits.
Smith had a couple of key plays in the Bulldogs’ 41-37 victory. First he fielded a kickoff four yards deep in the end zone and fumbled it over to South Carolina on the Georgia 8-yard line after he decided to bring it out. Just five minutes later, the freshman cornerback was back on the field, this time on offense. And this time he held onto the ball, taking a reverse pitch and showing blazing speed on the way to 61-yard touchdown.
While the touchdown play did wonders for Smith’s confidence — not to mention the Georgia scoreboard — it really resonated with the many elite recruits there to watch the game.
“I really liked the way they used [Smith] on both offense and defense,” said Newnan’s Alec Ogletree, the state’s No.1-ranked defensive back and an early UGA commitment. “I wouldn’t mind playing some offense if they asked me, but I’m I wouldn’t say I’m as fast as he his. And I liked that they stuck with him after he fumbled that kickoff. They put him right back out there and that really showed me something.”
“They told me to watch how their young players played,” said Manning, S.C., cornerback Johnovan Fulton, who is rated as South Carolina’s top defensive back, told Scout.com. ” I was really impressed with how they used Branden Smith and that really opened my eyes and made me like Georgia even more. . . . I liked the way they utilized him all over the field.”
Smith was the top-rated cornerback in America when he signed with Georgia out of Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High. He said being able to play on both sides of the ball and return kicks was a major reason he chose the Bulldogs from more than 30 offers.
“It was a big factor,” the Georgia freshman said Tuesday. “Since the first day they recruited me — they were the first people to offer me a full scholarship — it was something we talked about. Coach [Mark] Richt said he wanted me to play both sides of the ball and I really wanted to play both sides. He told me I could if I committed. I did and it’s all come out true.”
Georgia’s coaches took some heat for even having Smith back returning kickoffs Saturday. Sophomore Brandon Boykin had returned the previous kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. And Smith was criticized the week before for bringing the ball out of the end zone despite fielding it deep.
Then Smith lost the handle on the football without even being hit and South Carolina recovered deep in Georgia territory. He didn’t know what to expect coming to the Georgia sideline.
Smith said he was surprised by what he encountered.
“Hearing my teammates keep rooting me on, that just put the spirit back in me,” Smith said. “They were saying to forget about it, that I’d get another chance. Coach Richt told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m gonna put you back in. Redeem yourself.’ It took a little while. The whole time I was just thinking to myself, ‘if I can touch the ball again, what can I do?’ When they called my name to get in on offense, I was just talking to myself saying, ‘I have to make something happen on this play.’ Once I got the ball, it was just good blocking by the receivers and the O-line and I just made it happen.”
Smith said he could see how his experience this past Saturday resonated with recruits. It was, after all, not so long ago that he was one of the guys standing on the sideline wondering what it might be like to play there.
“That’s one thing I can really tell recruits: Coach Richt is a man of his word,” Smith said. “If he says something he really means it.”