Finally, believe me when I say that next year's class, barring utter catastrophe, will be much better. Partially because there is a great deal of talent in the state of Georgia for 2011, and our coaches have done a great job of jumping on the right guys early. To some extent, especially on defense, it appears that the coaches moved on to 2011 early this year, knowing that our new defensive staff didn't have time to build the necessary relationships with uncommitted 2010 recruits. ---Some random dude at Dawg Sports grappling for something positive, February 3, 2010.
What a difference a year makes, huh? As Kyle already pointed out, it's been about a decade and a half since a University of Georgia staff hit the road to recruit with so much so obviously on the line. I'm dating myself here, but I remember that 1995 recruiting season. That's partially because I was a high school football player, and Coach Goff spoke at my high school's annual football banquet in the midst of it, perhaps because he was actively recruiting a couple of my teammates who were far more talented than your faithful correspondent. I remember the vibe that surrounded the Georgia football program that offseason. It was not good. There was a distinct sense that Goff was a proverbial "dead coach walking" and that change was coming.
On Signing Day night, as I crack open a frosty beverage and look at the stars (not the ones in the sky, the ones on the front page of all the 'Dawg-centric recruiting sites) I sense a very different mojo. Look, I've been one of the folks who has poo-pooed a lot of what has come out of Athens this offseason under the banner of "change." I've said on more than one occasion that the talk about "going old school" and "rededication" and "accountability" is nothing but a bunch of pretty words if we get beaten like we stole something in the Georgia Dome come September. This program didn't get to 6-7 overnight. The road back out of the wilderness is just as long as it was going in.
But I can't take this one away from Mark Richt. As they say in south Georgia, he done good. Recruiting is about two things: the hand you're dealt and how you play it. The best recruiter can't succeed without good football players to recruit. As Bear Bryant was fond of saying when explaining his devotion to recruiting "you can't make chicken salad out of chicken crap." Mark Richt is the head coach of the flagship university of one of the 4 most talent-rich states in the nation. He's dealt a good hand every year.
But as the brief snippet at the top of this piece pointed out a year ago, this was a very good year instate even by Georgia' s standards, especially outside of the Atlanta area. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the 706/770/678/404 metroplex. But recruiting out here in the hinterlands is, well, different. Mark Richt can walk into the local high school in Moultrie, Rochelle, Columbus or Thomasville and set the place abuzz in a whole different way. He can literally electrify the whole town by walking into the gym during a basketball game, as he did at Wilcox County last season to watch Nick Marshall and his teammates. A clear majority of football fans in those locales are partial to the Bulldogs, and a clear majority of the residents as a whole are football fans. In other words, Nick Marshall cannot escape constant exposure to Red and Black partisans. That's a good hand to be dealt.
But even the best hand can be turned into a loser in clumsy hands. And our recruiting has been pretty clumsy at times in the past couple of years. The Devin Burns fiasco. Waiting to offer Jarvis Jones until after locking up Chase Vasser. Willie Martinez's infatuation with 5'4 cornerbacks, especially those from south Florida. I'm sure you folks can think of a few more.
But this year the coaches knew when to hold them and when to fold them. They identified the best players for 2011 early and were after them with a vengeance before even wrapping up the 2010 class. Mark Richt and crew have recruited like their jobs depend on it for 2011. Maybe they do. But the coaches have made no secret of the guys they wanted and have gone after them with a single-minded resolve which we haven't seen before. By Christmas Jay Rome was the only tight end on the board. Isaiah Crowell was the only tailback. That's a bit unnerving, but it was also a bit refreshing. For too long Georgia has recruited like it was South Florida. We took commitments from guys in July who we could have gotten in January. It was almost like the staff just wanted to be done with recruiting, like they took pride in sitting around the office for most of the day on Signing Day playing solitaire and expecting no surprises.
But there's no bonus in recruiting for finishing early. And the best players in the country have an alarming tendency to get courted by the best football programs in the country. In a crazy coincidence, the best programs in the country are coached by many of the best recruiters in the country. They make a kid think about things. They show him impressive football palaces stocked with flat screen televisions, indoor practice fields and coeds who hang on his every word. All of this means that landing the best players in the country, even the ones who grew up with David Greene posters on their bedroom walls, is difficult and time-consuming stuff.
And that's before you factor in a 6-7 season which landed with a thud in Memphis against Central Florida. If Mark Richt and crew had lost Ray Drew and Jay Rome and Isaiah Crowell and Malcolm Mitchell after a season like that no UGA fan would have been surprised. Frustrated? Yes. Disappointed? Sure. But not surprised. Instead, this class features those players, plus a boatload of other guys who could be called headliners in most any class in the nation.
And when you look at this class player by player you have to be pleased with the group for more reasons than the number of stars by their names on a website. We'll have a series of film breakdowns on players in this class over the coming weeks, and I'm not going to talk about all 26 of them in detail here, But there are some things I just can't hold back. As has been discussed at length on this site, Ray Drew is a physical specimen who'll see the field on special teams and on passing downs from day one. Perhaps more than that the guy is a natural leader who's not afraid to speak his mind. At times since 2008 it's been hard to tell who the vocal leaders on this team are. Pretty soon Ray Drew's going to be one of them.
The offensive line class, as a group, are underrated. Hunter Long was never really been recruited by other schools because they all knew where he was going from day one. We'll look at him in more depth later, but Long's football pedigree is unmatched. Xzavier Ward has the potential to be a bookend tackle in the SEC. Watching him feels a lot like watching Trinton Sturdivant in high school. He's not as physically developed at this point, but the feet and the overall quickness are there. Ditto Zach Debell, who can literally be as good as he wants to be. I like an offensive tackle athletic enough to play tight end in the U.S. Army All-American Game. That's intriguing. Watts Dantzler and David Andrews both wanted to be Bulldogs from day one, which really does mean something.
Speaking of which, anyone who watched that game had to be pleased to see Sterling Bailey team with Ray Drew to harrass the West's quarterbacks. Had he not committed so early, Bailey's commitment would have been met with the same fanfare as Rome, Mitchell, and Swann's (Oxford comma 'till I die, y'all).
Speaking of Mitchell, I think he's going to play wide receiver in Athens, and I think he'll play as a freshman. Again, we discuss this in detail later, but Malcolm Mitchell has the type of athleticism that just can't be taught. Think Branden Smith. Now think 6'1, 190 lb. Branden Smith.
Kent Turene may not be a physical specimen at this point. But we're not looking for models, we're looking for football players. Kent Turene is a football player, a linebacker who plays downhill and tackles. Remember tackling? I'd compare Turene in some respects to Bulldog linebacker Tony Gilbert, which I believe to be high praise.
I could go on, but the bottomline on this class is that there just aren't a lot of gaps. We didn't get a fullback, and that worries me just a little. I like Zander Ogletree, but we've seen how much more effective our offense is when we have a big, healthy fullback. Bruce Figgins is not likely to have a handle on that position in year one at the position, and he doesn't get a year two. So long term, there's one need unfulfilled.
There's also the matter of John Jenkins. Big bad John (H/T hailtogeorgia). If he commits on Saturday he instantly becomes the guy in this class most likely to start from day one. If he goes elsewhere, our only defensive tackle in this class is Chris Mayes, who's played two seasons of football in his entire life and (allegedly, rumor has it) may not even yet be qualified to play as a freshman. So nose tackle looks like a feast or famine situation.
But overall I think Bulldog fans have to be pleased. Does this class mean that we win the SEC East next season? No. Does it mean that we win in Jacksonville? Not remotely. But Seth Emerson put it well when he said that Coach Richt didn't hide from the importance of this signing class. 25 players is a substantial portion of the team. And while these guys may not turn things around in Athens immediately (that job falls to the players already there) as a group they signal the first positive momentum in this program in a long, long time. I'm not ready to say that we've yurned some mythical corner. But I'm willing to say that things loomm a heckuva lot brighter than they did 365 days ago. Until later . . .