UGA Brings in a Top Class
By Kevin Price
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SouthernPigskin.com contributor Kevin Price breaks down Georgia's 2011 recruiting class.
ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt emerged from his office about 11 a.m. Wednesday with his coaching staff by his side to address several hundred Georgia fans that came to the school’s athletic complex to watch the national letters of intent roll in from future Bulldogs on national signing day.
He knew at that time Georgia had assembled a top-flight class that was ranked in the top 10 by ESPN, Scout and Rivals – the country’s three most popular recruiting services for college football – based on the commitments they had received from players leading up to national signing day.
Still, Georgia coaches and fans anxiously awaited word from its primary target Isaiah Crowell, the top prospect in the Peach State and the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2011 class by several national recruiting services, who wasn’t scheduled to announce his college intentions until a 1:30 p.m. live interview carried by ESPNU.
When the Carver-Columbus product chose Georgia over Alabama in early afternoon his decision completed a day in which Georgia got 24 letters of intent, and Richt said what he has already said earlier in the day with even more confidence, that the Bulldogs might have pieced together the best class since he took over the program prior to the 2001 season.
Georgia signed 15 of the top 50 players in the state and eight of the top 12 based on rankings compiled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Several of these same players are also some of the highest-rated players in the nation at their respective positions, including five-star rated prospect Jay Rome of Valdosta, who is considered the No. 1 tight end in the country by ESPN, and Ray Drew, another five-star player tabbed the top defensive end in the nation by Rivals. The Bulldogs plan to play Drew at outside linebacker.
“I can’t say they will make an immediate impact, but over the course of their careers hopefully they will be the best class we’ve signed at Georgia because of their size, strength and character,” said Richt, who has signed several top-10 classes in previous years. “Hopefully throughout their careers all of that will show.”
Georgia is 96-34 in 10 seasons under Richt with two SEC championships. However, his last two teams combined for a 14-12 record.
Crowell’s decision to become a Bulldog capped a banner day for Georgia, especially considering it came on the heels of a disappointing 6-7 season that included a mind-boggling 10-7 loss to Conference USA champion Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.
Criticism of Richt that began even before the season started intensified after the bowl loss, raising continued questions about his future status with the Bulldogs.
No doubt, he will be on the proverbial hot seat entering Georgia’s 2011 campaign which starts with an intriguing national spotlight game against Boise State in the Georgia Dome.
But at least on Wednesday, the heat was turned down on the beleaguered Georgia coach as he and is coaching staff brought in most of the players they targeted when they sought to sign a “Dream Team” class in what was considered a strong year for in-state prospects.
“There was an awful lot of work done to get this class together, and it took a whole lot of help,” said Richt, who had forgotten he came up with the Dream Team idea and was reminded by Georgia recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Rodney Garner at their press conference Wednesday.
“Like always, you don’t get all the guys you want, but I thought we nailed it pretty good.”
The Bulldogs accomplished their goal, also, in a year when maybe their rivals were pointing out the uncertainty of Richt’s future at Georgia and the program’s direction in general.
“Obviously with some of the trials and tribulations we had some schools tried to sell that as a crack in the armor and tried to seize the opportunity,” Garner said.
“But we always try to sell Georgia, and like I’ve always said it’s a great program that really sells itself. We feel like we are going to get it turned around, and I think the kids know that.”
Several of Georgia’s recruits did a good job of selling the Bulldogs to others, Garner said. Even though Drew didn’t actually commit to the team until five days before signing day, he had been talking up the Bulldogs to potential teammates since October, Garner said.
“Outside of our coaches, he probably did as good a job as anyone,” Garner said. “I think he realized Georgia is still gold. It just needs to be shined up a little bit and get its glitter back.”
Another player who spent a lot of time talking to other potential signees was Christian LeMay, a four-star player by Rivals and the nation’s No. 3 quarterback prospect from North Carolina. He is one of two players who has already enrolled at Georgia and will go through spring practice. The other is wide receiver Chris Conley, a four-star recruit by Scout from Dallas, Ga.
“I’m excited about it,” said LeMay, when asked about being a Dream Team member. “I’ve known a lot of the guys for a long time. I met them at camps and other things. I’m glad I could be one of the catalysts for this group and glad it came together well.”
Shortly after the noon hour Wednesday, all of Georgia’s signees except for Crowell had sent their paperwork into the Bulldog offices at the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall where new offices and practice facilities for the football team are almost complete.
One of Georgia’s signees was Kent Turene, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker, from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., who had been a longtime Southern Cal commit. The Under-Armor All-American recently withdrew his verbal commitment to the Trojans and chose to sign with the Bulldogs on Wednesday.
Crowell, the nation’s No. 4 overall prospect by ESPN, was the largest prize for the Bulldogs, of course. Many figure he could figure heavily into Georgia’s rushing attack next season as the Bulldogs have struggled to run the ball consistently in recent seasons.
As he made his announcement in Columbus on national television, Crowell pulled a Georgia cap from underneath a table. Moments later, Crowell was handed a white English bulldog puppy that belongs to Mike Woods. Woods, whose nickname is Big Dog, lives just outside of Athens and is the well-known regular at Georgia sporting events who paints the Bulldog mascot head on his shiny bald dome.
Crowell rushed for 1,627 yards and 17 touchdowns this past season for Carver, despite missing four full games due to an injury and also not playing past halftime as the Georgia small-school power that finished 13-1 rolled past most opponents.
“He’s got great skills with size, strength and speed,” Richt said. “He’s agile and also has great hands. He’s a very, very versatile guy.
“But, he’s just a great kid. He came up wanting to be a Bulldog.”
That said, he was among several of Georgia’s biggest targets who didn’t commit to the Bulldogs until late in the recruiting process.
Others who were late commits included Rome and his Valdosta teammate Malcolm Mitchell, who both committed to the Bulldogs on the same day in late January.
Richt said Wednesday that Mitchell, a consensus four-star talent who could play wide receiver or cornerback, is a special player.
“I think I am leaning toward receiver with him,” Richt said. “But, he is capable of either one. He’s an outstanding punt returner and kick returner as well.”
Richt praised all of Georgia’s earliest commits for sticking with the Bulldogs even after the team’s struggles in 2010.
“They could have bailed out, but they held their faith in Georgia and the coaching staff,” he said.
Georgia’s class may not be complete, either. The Bulldogs are still in the running for John Jenkins, a 340-pound nose guard from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. One of the nation’s top-rated junior college prospects, he plans to announce his intentions Saturday back home in Connecticut. He is expected to choose from Georgia, Auburn, Florida and Miami.
It is well-known that Jenkins struck up a friendship with Drew as they talked during the recruiting process and visited Miami at the same time.