23 For 2023 - The 23 People Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on UGA Football’s Success as it Pursues a Three-Peat
“Who would you rank as the coaches most important to UGA’s success?”
That question was recently posed to me by a DawgsCentral subscriber in response to a piece of intel that I posted on our forum. I started to type out a response, but a couple sentences in I realized that the answer to the question is quite complex. To make such a list, one must make broad value judgments on what assets are most important to a modern college football program.
When thinking about the answer I also found myself thinking about an old football cliche… "It's not the X's and the O's but the Jimmys and the Joes." That got me considering the players who will suit up on gamedays for Georgia next fall. Good gameplans and great play calls are key to any team’s success, but they are usually only as good as the personnel executing them.
With that in mind, I decided to broaden the scope of these rankings beyond just members of the coaching staff. As I go through this list I will touch on every position room and virtually every facet of the Georgia Football program. In that way, it will serve as both my version of a spring practice preview and a look at the state of the program.
So without further adieu, here are the 23 people most crucial to UGA’s success in the year 2023. Whether or not Georgia is able to win a third straight championship, and how they go about trying to do it, will be largely influenced by the roles these individuals play…
#14 Stacy Searels
When Kirby Smart hired Stacy Searels from North Carolina for his second stint as Georgia’s offensive line coach there was a great deal of angst among Bulldog Nation.
That UGA was searching for an offensive line coach at all was fairly unexpected to begin with. Matt Luke had been in charge of the unit since shortly after he was fired at Ole Miss in December of 2019. At just 45 years old, Luke chose to step away from football to spend time with his family. He left the program after winning a national championship with the Bulldogs.
The college football coaching carousel was basically done spinning by the time Luke formally announced he was stepping away. Most staffs were already settled and moving towards spring practice, which limited the candidate pool for Smart.
Georgia first targeted Baylor OL coach Eric Mateos. At the time of the search, sources told DawgsCentral that a verbal agreement had been reached for Mateos to join the staff in Athens. UGA had already drafted a memorandum of understanding when Mateos decided to stay at Baylor. Smart then targeted Searels and hired him away from UNC.
The hire was met with a lukewarm reception from some in the fanbase. Searels was Mark Richt’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator for four years in the late 2000’s. His tenure started out with a bang in 2007, as the Bulldogs rode Knowshon Moreno to a Sugar Bowl win and a #2 ranking in the final AP poll. From there things regressed. UGA was ranked #1 in the 2008 preseason but a young offensive line was among the things that sank the Bulldogs.
In 2009 the Dawgs ranked 58th in the FBS in rush yards per game while struggling to an 8-5 record. In 2010 the run game again sputtered and ranked just 76th in the nation with only 140.5 rush yards a game. Searels came under fire by some media personalities and certain factions of the fanbase. The criticism blamed him for UGA’s failures in the run game, but how responsible he was for UGA’s problems at that time is very debatable. Searels took a job as the Texas OL coach after a 10-6 loss to UCF in the Liberty Bowl.
Many Georgia fans had memories of those dark days bubble back up when the Searels hire was announced. It also didn’t help that the unit Searels coached at UNC in 2021 gave up 3.9 sacks per game. That number was 3rd worst in the FBS.
As is almost always the case, Kirby Smart knew a thing or two that UGA fans and media did not. Searels is one of the more decorated OL coaches in college football today. He played tackle for Auburn and was an All-American for the Tigers in 1987. He joined his alma mater as a grad assistant from 1992-1993 and then became the OL coach at Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were an FCS program in those days, and he honed his craft under legendary coach Jerry Moore from 1994-2000 before taking the same position at Cincinnati.
When Nick Saban needed to replace George Yarno following the 2002 season, it was Searels, then a young up and coming coach, who he tabbed to come down to Baton Rouge. The next year the Tigers won a national title. Following that season, Kirby Smart joined Saban’s staff as the defensive backs coach. Smart served under LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
2004 was a long time ago, but Smart was familiar with Searels and had worked with him before. In hindsight, there are a few boxes that Searels checked that made him a very logical and uniquely qualified hire for the Bulldogs.
The first box was personality... Searels had the aforementioned familiarity with coaches already on staff. Smart knew what he was getting and knew Searels would work well with the personalities he had already assembled. Smart made 4 hires after the Bulldogs won the 2021 national title. As Kirby Smart has matured as a coach we have seen him prioritized internal staff dynamics more and more. Good recruiters have been allowed to walk if they didn’t fit in well with the other personalities on hand.
After UGA beat Oregon, Smart said the following… "Our staff is the best it's ever been. We've got a great staff right now and it's awesome because we've got a great...we've always had a good staff, but we've got a really great staff right now in terms of guys enjoying the work together and putting plans together, and I thought they did a great job of doing that… The buy-in of those four coaches. The alignment. The understanding of this program's bigger than me and that I'll sacrifice for the program. They understand their role. They've done what they've been asked to do and they embrace it and there is a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm at practice...and it works. So it's created a really good kind of connection amongst the staff…”
The media didn’t love the addition of Searels, which was a bit ironic considering how Georgia fans saw his hiring away from LSU as a coup when Richt brought him aboard in 2007. When he came aboard it struck me as relevant that Richt and Mack Brown had both hired him twice and that Smart was clearly happy to work with him again. Put simply, Searels has a reputation as being a really good guy. We didn’t know when he was hired that Mike Bobo would be the offensive coordinator a year later, but it’s an added bonus that those two have worked together in the past as well.
The second box was also personality in a way… Searels walked into an offensive line room that was a bit unsettled. Some talented players were considering transferring and hadn’t meshed well with Luke. On the field, Searels had two excellent starting tackles in Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon. In the middle of his unit was one of the team’s strongest leaders, Sedrick Van Pran. It took some time for Searels and the players he inherited to really feel each other out, but pretty soon they started to click. By the time UGA hit October, sources said that the offensive line room was functioning better than it had in years. Searels is an excellent communicator who excels at figuring out how to motivate his players and understands how to reach a wide range of personalities. He brought stability and calm to the unit.
The third box is scheme… Searels has done a ton of work over the years on a lot of different units, and the man knows offensive line play like few do. I have written a LOT over the last couple years about the diversity of Georgia’s run schemes. When Sam Pittman left Athens for Arkansas, Kirby Smart made the decision to move away from the zone-heavy attack that relied on his linemen to always win against the man across from them. That strategy struggled in 2019 and Smart wanted to freshen things up. He hired Luke, an offensive line coach who had a lot of experience running gap scheme attacks that got his linemen pulling across the formation and moving downfield.
That philosophical switch required Georgia to recruit a different type of offensive lineman than it had under Pittman. The Bulldogs needed the size they had always craved up front, but they also needed players who were quick enough to pull into a hole and decleat a linebacker scraping into the hole.
In 2019, Georgia ran zone scheme on 84% of his runs. That bumped down to 71% in 2020. Then in 2021 the Dawgs transformed to a team that was 51.7% zone scheme and 48.3% gap scheme. In 2022, UGA kept on the same path with 53% zone runs and 47% gap.
Luke had helped oversee the installation of the gap scheme concepts and it gave UGA a release valve when its zone run game was being stood up by an opponent’s defensive line (think James Cook’s long run late in the 3rd quarter of the 2021 national championship game).
The ability to execute gap and zone at equally effective levels has become a defining characteristic of the UGA program. It makes the Bulldogs a nightmare for a defense to prepare for and it is quite rare to see a team that doesn’t rely on one or the other the vast majority of the time.
Searels oversaw some excellent rushing attacks at UNC. His 2020 unit paved the way for two RB’s who gained over 1,000 yards and averaged 7+ yards per carry. His 2021 group also had two rushers with over 1,000 yards. More important than those numbers is how they were achieved. The 2020 UNC team was 60% zone scheme and in 2021 the Tar Heels were 58% zone.
Those numbers aren’t quite as even as Georgia’s 2021 season was, but Searels was overseeing a unit that deployed both schemes frequently and executed them well. That is rare in college football, and it made Searels uniquely qualified for the job at Georgia.
Despite the initial reactions, Searels has ended up being a perfect fit for this Georgia program at this time. His personality meshes well and his understanding of the game is excellent. It was Searels who got on the headset in Columbia, Missouri last fall and urged Todd Monken to call more gap scheme runs to help his offensive linemen out. That decision led to UGA’s ground game grabbing chunks of yardage in the second half and that propelled Georgia to a come from behind victory.
When he joined the program there was concerns about his recruiting, but Searels has found his footing on that front. Fans talked about the lack of five-star linemen he had signed in the past, but he landed 5-star OT Monroe Freeling in his first full cycle. By doing so, Searels took the #1 player in South Carolina out of the state.
As UGA moves towards its pursuit of a three-peat, the offensive line might be the unit where the Dawgs will have the least questions. Georgia will go into the 2023 season returning 4 solid starters on the offensive line and Searels will have Earnest Greene and Austin Blaske to choose between at left tackle. Both are talented young players who have already grown a lot under his tutelage.
What makes Smart’s program so dominant in this era of football is the way it has been built from the inside out. Spread formations and vertical passing attacks rule the day, but Georgia’s dominance on the line of scrimmage is the closest thing that exists to a variance eraser. Searels is responsible for keeping the Dawgs dominant at the point of attack, and with his influence fans can expect UGA’s linemen to get to the second level and clean up defenders downfield as much as at any point in Smart’s tenure.
If Searels can get his 2023 unit to reach its ceiling then Georgia will likely field the best offensive line it has had under Kirby Smart. That front five could pave the way for a dominant run game and ensure the UGA quarterbacks feel confident in the pocket. If it does, the Dawgs will be very hard to beat.