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Kirby Smart weighs in on roster management, importance of walk-ons

Palmber-Thombsby:Palmer Thombs06/02/24

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Roster caps and walk-ons were the biggest topic of discussion this past week at SEC Spring Meetings, and Kirby Smart reportedly was one of the biggest advocates for keeping things the way they’ve been. While the foundation of college athletics is fundamentally changing with the recent news of the settlement in House v. NCAA, Smart and several other head coaches hope that rosters can remain in a place where walk-ons are able to be a part of them.

“I think there’s a lot of speculation and a lot of narratives out there that are loose and that may not be true. We’re here to figure that out,” Smart said at spring meetings. “I’m not completely up to date and educated completely on where it is. I do feel strongly that roster spots are important and that walk-ons are important. Where that falls, that’s what we’re here to decide.”

“There’s so many things that are going on right now. Like, all the questions you guys are asking, there’s not one thing dominating,” he added. “Probably, in the nine years I’ve been part of this, this is the most anticipated meetings because there is so much left — not necessarily for us to decide – but for us to have input on. Some of it is beyond our decision-making process. So, there is a lot there.”

Smart, who has been around the sport at the collegiate level since the ’90s, understands the challenges of roster management as well as anybody out there. Each year, his team turns over more than a third of its roster and is asked to replace those that depart in the transfer portal or through the traditional high school recruiting ranks. Those that stay are developed, and oftentimes, they contribute to the team’s success down the road.

“The management comes through what decisions you make, and what NIL requires to get a kid and we are fundamentally a high school development program. We want to sign high school players, develop high school players and grow them as men and retain our roster,” Smart said. “I think when you look across the country we’ve done as good a job of anybody of retaining our roster and not having to go wholesale into the portal, which is what I prefer to do when you talk about roster management. But we put a lot of time and effort into our roster, and that includes our PWOs and our kids that maybe are backups, because we think their future says they’re going to be starters. So we want to grow and develop our players from within and not have to go through the portal.”

Smart would also be one to say that walk-ons are a key component of that retention. Not only do they provide extra bodies for practice and depth, they spend valuable time in the system. It allows Georgia’s coaches to feel comfortable putting them in if called upon. Guys like Stetson Bennett, Dan Jackson and Rodrigo Blankenship are just a few of the incredible walk-on stories that have come out of Athens and helped the Bulldogs have success on Saturdays.

“I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t defend walk-ons. We’re talking about something that just makes sense,” Smart said. “Now, when you implement that known fact into some form of settlement that I don’t completely understand, I don’t know where that factors in. OK? But when you look at Dabo Swinney’s career, Will Muschamp’s career, you look at Ladd McConkey. You look at guys that have come to schools and then gone on to be successful football players, successful football coaches, successful at everything they do.”

“They overcame the ultimate odds,” Smart continued. I don’t know anybody who would be against having those walk-ons. At what cost does that bring us? I think it hurts high school football and football as a whole when kids can’t even dream about ‘what I might be able to do if I can’t get an opportunity.’ I think that’s a challenge.”

Of course, nothing was actually decided at SEC Spring Meetings. The debate rolls on, and the conferences and the NCAA must come to a consensus before too long. That’s a discussion for another day, but in the mean time, it was one coaches like Smart took an opportunity to chime in on.

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