In his first offseason as Georgia Bulldogs head coach, Kirby Smart is faced with a daunting task: landing UGA's talented linebacker recruits.
College football programs with a new head coach generally have more difficulty recruiting than those with an established coaching staff. After all, these are high school kids who have to make a life-altering decision. Some of them will even have the privilege of playing in the NFL someday, a possibility that is largely contingent on how well their college coaches prepare them for the NFL.
Even with a new coaching staff, however, the Dawgs are still elite recruiters. 247Sports' 2016 composite rankings have UGA at No. 9 overall, just a handful of recruits away from cracking the top five.
The Bulldogs also happen to be in the hunt for two of the best—if not THE two best—linebacker recruits in the country: Alabama natives Ben Davis and Lyndell "Mack" Wilson.
Davis, an inside linebacker at Gordo High School, is the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country and No. 10 overall prospect, according to 247Sports.
His father, Wayne Davis, is the Alabama Crimson Tide's all-time leading tackler and has taken up a supportive role in his son's recruitment process. Though Davis has been open about his desire for his son to play at Alabama, he has said he will support whichever decision he makes.
"I made it clear with Ben that he needs to go to Alabama,” said Davis, via Tide 99.1's Kevin Connell. "I made it clear with Ben also that I want him to go around and look at the other schools and make up his own mind."
He had been considered a slam-dunk commit for the Crimson Tide until a few weeks ago, but everything changed for the younger Davis when Smart—one of Davis' primary recruiters at Alabama—left Tuscaloosa to become the Bulldogs' head coach, prompting him to name Georgia his leader.
Wilson, an outside linebacker at Carver High School, also included Georgia in his recruiting chase once Smart was settled in Athens. Listed by 247Sports as the No. 2 outside linebacker in the country and No. 15 overall prospect, he included UGA in his top three schools alongside Alabama and the Florida Gators.
Davis and Wilson are not the only high-profile recruits Georgia is pursuing. Having already landed No. 2 overall quarterback Jacob Eason and No. 1 tight end Isaac Nauta, the Dawgs are also in the mix for three additional 5-star prospects: defensive tackle Derrick Brown, athlete Mecole Hardman Jr. and wide receiver Demetris Robertson.
But make no mistake—Davis and Wilson are the two most important recruiting targets for the Bulldogs.
The formula for success in the SEC is well-established. A successful team requires a physical offensive line that excels in run blocking, a powerful defensive line that can stuff the run and a linebacker corps that can do everything effectively.
Of those three, the latter is by far Georgia's biggest weakness heading into the 2016 season. Three of last year's starting linebackers for the Dawgs—Leonard Floyd, Jake Ganus and Jordan Jenkins—have graduated. They will likely be replaced by rising juniors Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, as well as rising senior Tim Kimbrough.
Behind them, however, is an utter dearth of depth. Rising sophomore Natrez Patrick showed the most promise last year, but he has dealt with some serious off-field issues in the past few weeks. Rising senior Reggie Carter has been plagued by injury. Roquan Smith will need to make a big leap in his sophomore season, as will D'Andre Walker.
The recruiting trail for both Davis and Wilson has become a high-risk, high-reward situation. In his latest piece, my Bleacher Report colleague Tyler Donohue noted the distinct possibility that the duo would come to the same school as a "package deal".
The reason for such a decision is that they have become good friends through the recruiting process. In a Twitter post back on Dec. 12, Davis—wearing No. 32—showed his love and respect for Wilson (No. 30):
In the last few days, Georgia's recruiting status with the duo has taken an interesting turn. Since December, Georgia had gone from Davis' favorite to "sharing No. 1" with Alabama. After his Jan. 24 official visit to Tuscaloosa, Davis was ready to name Alabama his new leader altogether.
Whereas Davis' chances with the Dawgs have taken a slight dip, Wilson has become an increasingly likely commit for Georgia. Starting off as the third option behind Alabama and Florida, his official visit to Athens back on Jan. 15 yielded fantastic results for the Dawgs, as Wilson considered his visit to be "a perfect 10". As a result, Wilson notes that Georgia is now "equal" with Alabama and Florida in his recruiting chase.
Kipp Adams of Dawgs247 and 247Sports detailed the full extent of Wilson's satisfaction with his visit, as well as his potential future in Athens:
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, even losing both Davis and Wilson does not completely void them of blue-chip linebacker commits. Jaleel Laguins, an in-state inside linebacker from Oconee County High School, has been a UGA "hard commit" since committing to Georgia back on Aug. 19. Laguins is the No. 10 overall inside linebacker in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports.
With national signing day coming up on Feb. 3, this next week is crucial for Georgia. Both Davis and Wilson will be committing that day, so Smart and company need to make one final, convincing pitch to their prized linebacker targets. Fielding an elite 2016 linebacker class will ease concerns heading into next season, and it could put Georgia back into the national championship picture.