ATHENS — I have a real love-hate relationship with recruiting. As a sportswriter, I have no choice but to follow it. As a journalist, I tend to be skeptical and a bit put off by it. As a college football fan and paid observer, I understand the importance of it.
First, I have the utmost respect for those whose job it is to cover recruiting. I had a brief stint during my career with Cox Media Group and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which I was the recruiting reporter. That was both an exciting and frustrating period in my career. I’m not sure my phone has ever been more busy.
Between camps, showcases, visits and signing periods, recruiting really never ends. Professionals such as DawgNation’s Jeff Sentell really don’t get much of an offseason anymore. They’re inundated with calls and texts daily and are constantly traveling to meet with prospects and to stay on top of their recruitment and earn their trust.
The first full class of Georgia’s that I covered in that role was the 2011 class. And that was a good one for the Bulldogs (as all of them generally are). That class quite nicely reflected both the beauty and the beastliness of football recruiting.
Overall, the class was rated high, No. 7 in the country according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That was third among SEC teams, which generally is the more important measure. Alabama’s class was ranked No. 1, and Auburn’s was second.
The two 5-star studs in Georgia’s class that year were Isaiah Crowell and Ray Drew. Crowell was, of course, the No. 1 tailback in the country, hailing from of Carver-Columbus. I got to know his high school coach pretty well that year from all the calls I had to make down there. Dell McGee is now Georgia’s running backs coach and a deft recruiter himself.
Drew was a 5-star defensive end from Thomas County Central in Thomasville. He was the ultimate recruiting “playa” in that he very much enjoyed the process and took delight in keeping everybody guessing. Fortunately I got to know Drew well enough that he confided in me ahead of time that he would sign with the Bulldogs, which he did to great fanfare on National Signing Day.
You would have to say those players were generally both misses for Georgia and former coach Mark Richt. Crowell was a special player, as his continuing NFL career attests. But he came with a lot of baggage, including his cousin Quintavius Harrow, who Georgia also signed. Both were dismissed for disciplinary reasons before the 2012 season.
Drew was a great young man, a decent player and a good teammate. But he never really lived up to the 5-star billing. To his credit, he once said, “Hey, I didn’t rank myself a 5-star.”
Nick Marshall was another big-deal signee in that class. Of course, he, too, ended up elsewhere and actually delivered the pass known as the Prayer at Jordan-Hare to beat Georgia in 2013.
No, the real value in that class, like most of them, came a little further down the list. Georgia landed very productive 4-stars in wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and defensive back Damian Swann. Not including injuries, both of them were four-year starters. That class also produced starters Chris Conley, John Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera and 3-star steal Ramik Wilson, among a few others.
The real hidden gem in that class was an offensive lineman named David Andrews. Among the lowest rated prospects in that class, “Boss,” as he would come to be known by his teammates and UGA fans, started at center for three seasons and played in his second Super Bowl on Sunday night as the starting center for the New England Patriots.
And, really, that kind of after-the-fact breakdown can be applied to virtually every recruiting class every team puts together every year. There are always prospects who aren’t as good as advertised, some who are better than thought and a percentage who won’t even be there a couple of years down the road.
The truth is, that’s also why so many of you love it so much. The unpredictability, inexactness and drama of it all intoxicate so many people. That’s why recruiting stories always are and will continue to be the most read on DawgNation and really all newspapers and dedicated team websites. If you allow yourself to follow it closely, invariably you’ll get caught up in the chase and will hang on every word of these undecided prospects and the recruiting experts such as Sentell who are paid to keep up with them.
That’s what makes this National Signing Day so odd. With the advent of the early signing period in December, the first Wednesday in February has been rendered a bit anticlimactic. Thank goodness for recruits this year such as Crisp County linebacker Quay Walker and Concord, N.C., defensive lineman Rick Sandidge Jr., who have kept us guessing all the way into their Signing Day ceremonies Wednesday.
Keep this in mind, however, as you live and die with the decisions of these teenage athletes the next couple of days — and years: While recruiting and evaluation are more sophisticated than ever and talent is forever the lifeblood of a program, there are generally going to be as many misses as hits. When all is said and done, there is something to be said for landing a whole lot of serviceable college football players who stay out of trouble and graduate.
You know, as long as there are a few “impact players” mixed in. Figuring that out is an entertaining exercise, though, isn’t it?