ATHENS – Eight years ago, an offensive lineman at Atlanta’s Westlake High School signed to play football at Alabama. In a heralded class of recruits, he was only a three-star, a public afterthought.
But gradually Chance Warmack became an All-American, a key member of two national championship teams, and the 10th overall pick in the NFL draft. He also became yet another reminder that as important as recruiting is to a program, it doesn’t stop there.
“What you can’t do is say, Oh we’re going to go have a great recruiting class and it’s just automatically, magically going to happen. That’s not the case,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said last month. “That’s part of coaching, is taking your players and making them better. That’s the development word.”
Smart speaks from experience: You recruit great players, because it gives you a larger margin for error. But sometimes it’s the less heralded players who develop the best. He was at Alabama when it racked up great recruiting classes – but also developed some of those lower-rated players into stars.
Eddie Jackson was only a three-star recruit, the 350th-ranked player in the country, per the 247 Sports Composite. He became an All-American safety.
Georgia has done it too, with the best example getting ready to start in the most-watched event in sports.
David Andrews was a three-star recruit at a small private school in 2011. He became a three-year starter for the Bulldogs, the emotional leader of their offense, and will be the starting center for the New England Patriots when they face the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
When lightly-regarded recruits turn out better, or highly-touted recruits falter, it often can just be an error in evaluation. But it’s often, as Smart and recruiting analysts agree, a case of good coaching once they get to college.
“We’re not sentencing players to five-star or three-star careers when we confer those rankings on these guys,” said Barton Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “They still have a long way to go either way. I think that teams that are successful at the end of the day are teams that combine quality recruiting with development.”
Smart may be on the verge of signing one of the nation’s top classes, but last month he appeared to downplay the importance of that.
“I think so many of these recruiting classes that everybody talks about are so similar, talking about the top 15 to 20, they’re so close it’s what you do with them, not necessarily always who’s in them. How you can help them grow.”
Simmons said he would amend that a bit. He breaks them into tiers: The top five signing classes are “extremely similar,” then there’s very little difference in the next dozen classes.
“If you’re recruiting in the top three or four, I think you’re on a little different playing field,” Simmons said. “Those top two or three typically on a year-to-year basis are really special.”
So by being in the top five, Georgia is already in great position. That doesn’t mean developing isn’t important.
“All coaches talk about developing. But just the fact that Kirby Smart sort of recognizes that it’s just half the battle getting kids on campus, that’s encouraging for Georgia fans,” Simmons said. “That’s how you turn a special recruiting class into a special team.”