ATHENS — Georgia lost one of its top recruits, not to mention the coach’s son. Still, it was another stellar recruiting class for the Bulldogs, who filled every need as they prepare for a run at the national championship in 2008.
Receiver A.J. Green highlighted a group of 23 players signing with Georgia on Wednesday, a class ranked among the top 10 nationally by all the major recruiting services.
"We did a fantastic job of meeting our needs," coach Mark Richt said.
Scout.com ranked Georgia’s class as the fourth-best in the country, trailing only Alabama, Notre Dame and Miami. Tom Luginbill of ESPN put the Bulldogs at No. 5, as did Allen Wallace of SuperPrep Magazine. Rivals.com and Tom Lemming of CSTV had them one spot lower.
Georgia locked up most of its recruits well in advance of signing day, so there was little suspense when it actually arrived. The only surprise came when Dwayne Allen, a highly rated tight end from Fayetteville, N.C., defected to Clemson. Allen had reiterated his verbal commitment to Georgia earlier in the week, only to change his mind when it came time to actually sign.
"These days nothing surprises me," recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said. "Our focus is on the kids we got. Those are the kids that belong here. Those are the ones who are excited about playing for Georgia."
Allen’s defection notwithstanding, the Bulldogs had every reason to be giddy about one of the strongest classes yet in the Richt era. They signed five defensive linemen, five defensive backs, three offensive linemen, three running backs, two linebackers, two receivers, one tight end, one kicker, and one all-purpose player.
"This class is such a balanced class," Garner said. "When you look at it from top to bottom, it pretty much covers every positions except the quarterback position."
That was by design. Starter Matthew Stafford has two years of eligibility remaining, while 2007 signee Logan Gray was redshirted this past season and could be poised to start by the time Stafford is done.
"From day one, we knew we were not going to sign a quarterback in this class," Garner said. "But all the other positional needs, we feel like we were able to meet those needs." Georgia surely would’ve been the favorite for at least one quarterback: Jon Richt, the coach’s son. But Mark Richt felt it was in his oldest child’s best interest to play for a team other than the Bulldogs.
So Jon Richt signed with Clemson — with his father at his side.
"When he was in eighth, ninth, 10th grades, he was really gung-ho about Georgia," the coach said. "But I was starting to say, ‘Maybe we need to think about some of these other things.’ Little by little, I chipped away at it. I didn’t think it would be healthy for him, me or the program."
Richt worried that he wouldn’t be able to judge his son objectively. Also, he fretted about the expectations Jon would face if he signed with the Bulldogs.
"Look at Stafford last year, when he went through that series of turnovers," Richt said, referring to his quarterback’s freshman struggles. "I kept saying, ‘He’ll be fine. Just relax everyone, he’s going through some growing pains.’ Suppose that’s my son. Can you imagine how horrific that would have been? I don’t know if I could have survived it."
Green, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound receiver from Summerville, S.C., looks to be the standout of Georgia’s class. Ranked the ninth-best player in the country by Rivals, he could play right away after catching 72 passes for 1,437 yards and 15 touchdowns as a high school senior. The Bulldogs lost leading receiver Sean Bailey and are looking for someone who can help bring out Stafford’s full potential.
"I feel like A.J. has a really big upside," Garner said. "Hopefully he can come in with the mind-set that he’s going to compete. He’s going to add some much-needed depth and much-needed playmaking ability to the offense. We’d like to give Stafford as many weapons as we can get." Another priority was running back, even though Georgia looks set at the top two spots on the depth chart with budding star Knowshon Moreno and redshirt freshman Caleb King.
Knowing they needed more than two scholarship backs, the Bulldogs landed Richard Samuel from Cartersville, Dontavius Jackson from Heard County, and Carlton Thomas of Frostproof, Fla.
Samuel and Jackson have already enrolled and took part in their first offseason workout early Wednesday, one of those grueling ‘mat drills.’
"It was kind of rough," said Samuel. "But I think I can handle it if I just listen to what they tell me to do."
"It’s a challenge to me," said Samuel, No. 24 nationally according to Rivals. "I have to step up my game." Ben Jones, an offensive lineman from neighboring Alabama, was one of those players.
"All my buddies are big Alabama fans," he said. "But as the year went on, they were like, ‘Whoaaaa, we like Georgia. We like all that stuff they’re doing.’ They knew I made the right choice."