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Jeff Sentell/AJC
Markaviest "Big Cat" Bryant has finished his senior season. He can now focus on his college decision.

Sentell’s Intel: Prize target Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant gets real about his decision

Want a daily lap through Georgia football recruiting? That’s what the Intel will bring at least five days a week. We’ll cover the news and which way this 4-star or 5-star might lean and add a dab of perspective to help fans figure out what it all means.
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CORDELE, Ga. — Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant has played his last game for Crisp County. His Cougars took one on the chin in a 55-0 thrashing from Cedar Grove on Friday in the Georgia High School Association Class AAA state semifinals.

It was an abrupt ending. Crisp County was 13-0 heading into that clash. Now the only thing that’s left is to decide where he will play college football.

Bryant was especially candid after that contest. He spoke about his upcoming first official visit (Alabama) and when he expects to make his decision, along with where his head is right now regarding that big decision.

We’ll start with that last one. His initial comment traced around the obvious stuff.

“The only thing I can say is I have a top 4,” Bryant said. “It is really hard to say I’m committed to anybody right now or want to go to this school or that school right now. But I’m not going to lie, though. I’m kinda leaning toward LSU, Bama and Georgia. And Auburn. That’s it. I really can’t tell you anything else until after I take these visits.”

He said he’s still searching for that feeling about one of those schools.

“Trying to find that feeling in my heart that says I want to be here with that school,” Bryant said. “That will be what makes me commit.”

But there was something about the way he said that. It seemed rehearsed. You had to hear him say those words.

Bryant is rated as the nation's No. 14 DE for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Bryant is rated as the nation’s No. 14 DE for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

“Big Cat” is an engaging interview and one of the most interesting guys to talk to in the Class of 2017. But that response sounded like a kid who has been beaten down by answering that same question.

So I asked a follow-up. Sometimes a reporter can poison a subject’s potential response by including the wrong words in their query.

“I can really say the team to beat for me would be Georgia,” Bryant said. “They are recruiting me harder than everybody. They are the team that everyone will have to beat. That’s the team everyone else is going to have to beat out. I don’t disagree with that.”

He added one other thought.

“I am kind of leaning towards Georgia,” Bryant said. “I can say that. They are kind of leading for me. The season is over for me now so I can let people know how it is. That’s how it is.”

The best relationship Bryant has with a recruiter would be the one he has forged with Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer. Sherrer seems to work tirelessly to establish a genuine relationship with each of the program’s top targets in South Georgia.

Sherrer took an in-home visit with Bryant last Monday. He met his mother, sisters and his grandmother. That went well. He even spoke on the phone with Georgia coach Kirby Smart after that visit.

Bryant used to think he will take his decision all the way to National Signing Day. That was partly because he wanted recruiters to keep coming around to check out the other members of his team. Crisp County — under second-year coach Shelton Felton — had a dramatic turnaround this year.

The chase for Bryant might now last until mid-to-late January.

How does he currently feel about the Bulldogs?

“I love Georgia,” Bryant said. “There’s not much left for me to say about how much I love Georgia. It has always been one of my top schools and is still one of my top schools. I have a real good relationship with just about everyone on that coaching staff. I love them. Go Dawgs.”

Bryant and his head coach Shelton Felton (right) completed a dramatic turnaround season at Crisp County this year. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
Bryant and his head coach Shelton Felton (right) completed a dramatic turnaround season at Crisp County this year. (Jeff Sentell/AJC)

He hopes his official visits will further shape his decision. He’d like those to reinforce the feelings he gets when he speaks to certain coaches. He said he knows more about Auburn and Georgia than all the other schools he is closely considering.

Gus Malzahn’s program has recently jumped back into the picture with some increased momentum. Auburn senior defensive lineman Montravius Adams saw him play on Friday night.

That’s his cousin. Bryant even wore orange.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder knows he will take visits to the four schools mentioned above. He’s trying to find one more. The LSU visit will be interesting. He told DawgNation after his game on Friday that was his dream school at one point.

“Before I started into all this recruiting stuff the school I really wanted to go to was LSU,” Bryant said.

Florida appears to be the most likely school to land his fifth official visit at this time. But that one still sounds like it is very much up in the air.

Bryant said that Alabama was recruiting him as a defensive end and an outside linebacker. He believes that the Crimson Tide still has room in their 23-man class to accept his commitment.

To OV or not to OV? 

Alabama 5-star commitment Alex Leatherwood took an impromptu official visit to UGA over the weekend. It was a significant get for Georgia to get the nation’s No. 2 offensive tackle on campus this weekend.

That said, the nation’s No. 6 overall prospect is headed to Alabama. The only reason he’d detour from Tuscaloosa would be the lure of immediate playing time in Athens. Or anywhere else like Florida.

I just don’t think that motivates Leatherwood. He’s been an integral part of the Crimson Tide class since he committed in June of 2015. That’s six months longer than Richard LeCounte III has been committed to UGA.

Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman also has worked that same approach on another Crimson Tide commit at tackle. That’s 6-foot-7 junior college prospect Elliot Baker. There are reports that the City College of San Francisco standout will now take an official visit to Georgia.

I’d pump the brakes on those. Slightly.

My SEC Country colleague Chris Kirschner has visited Baker out in California. He spoke to Baker last night and clarified that stance.

Baker is leaning toward an official visit to UGA, but that is not certain. He told Kirschner he also could possibly go to LSU or Miami instead.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has become actively involved in Baker’s recruitment. The first step is just getting him on campus.

“Coach Smart talks to my mom a whole lot,” Baker told SEC Country. “I feel like it would be fun. I’ve heard that Athens is a really great college town.”

Pittman is a pro’s pro at recruiting, but Smart’s involvement is a big tell that the Bulldogs desperately need a significant playing upgrade at tackle for next season.

The Bulldogs have a pair of giant U.S. All-Americans coming to play tackle (D’Antne Demery and Andrew Thomas), but that is clearly not enough. There’s the flirtation with Baker and Leatherwood, not to mention another pair of 5-star tackles in this year’s senior class in Walker Little and Isaiah Wilson.

Georgia will scratch and tug on those guys until their hands bleed, but I just don’t see any of those guys coming on board. The windows are all small, but the guy fans should invest the balance of their hope in just might be Little.

Why? Well, Alabama’s not involved in the chase for Little. That’s a big plus. Pittman and Smart only have to wrestle Little away from Stanford and Texas.

More on Baker

Baker feels like he has earned the right to take all of his visits.

Pittman visited Baker out in California on Saturday. That has led to him considering that visit.

“I sat down with him and he gave me his pitch on why I should take that last visit there,” Baker said. “He was pitching to me that they need offensive linemen, but it doesn’t really change anything with my commitment. It looks good on paper, though.”

Baker sounds a lot like Leatherwood. Playing time and a layup line for a starting spot does not move the dial for him.

“I’m someone who likes a challenge,” Baker said. “I feel like surrounding myself with the best players in the nation. I feel like that’s what would make me a better player. Competing against the best players in the country would really raise my playing level. That’s what I like about Alabama. It’s also my dream school.”

How does his dream school feel about these late visits?

“I wouldn’t say they’re cool with it, but they were understanding,” Baker said. “They understand that I’ve earned the right to five visits.”

Alabama offensive line coach Brent Key (guards and centers) and assistant coach Mario Cristobal (tackles and tight ends) are his lead recruiters. Cristobal is also the recruiting coordinator at Alabama.

“They told me to enjoy myself and have fun but not too much fun,” Baker said. “I love those guys. I have a great relationship with the coaches over there, so nothing is going to change. They understand that I’m a 20-year-old guy and it’s a free trip, so I have to take advantage of it.”

Baker told Kirschner that nothing was going to change his mind about Alabama. He’s 100 percent certain of that. He mentioned Nick Saban getting fired as the only plausible way he’d reconsider playing anywhere but Alabama.

Georgia’s chances here — to borrow a baseball metaphor — aren’t quite like a left-hander trying to hit 6-foot-10 fireballer Randy Johnson back in his day. (Johnson faced 17,067 batters in his big league career and only gave up 25 (25!) homers to guys who stood in on the left side.) But these guys do seem extremely steadfast in their verbal commitment to the Crimson Tide.

It should prove to be a futile exercise, but Pittman and Smart will take their cuts with both Baker and Leatherwood. The chances are greater with Isaiah Wilson, but there’s also Michigan to deal with there.

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Follow Jeff Sentell on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.

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