MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — It was Alabama’s fault.
That’s the hurry-up, no-huddle way to examine why Georgia finished third in the race for the commitment of 5-star prospect JaCoby Stevens.
The Bulldogs missed out on a chance to pair the nation’s top-ranked safety (Richard LeCounte III) with 2017’s N0. 2 recruit (Stevens) at that same position when he choose LSU over UGA, Alabama and Auburn in a ceremony Monday at his high school. Why not go out and get the nation’s two best safeties? It mirrors what UGA is trying to do at quarterback with Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and Trevor Lawrence.
But the simple view is this: Alabama wedged a window of doubt in the nation’s No. 27 overall prospect regarding Georgia. Think of the Tide as the blocking back that cleared Georgia out of the way for LSU to score this 5-star commitment.
Stevens said “Alabama opened the door for LSU” on Monday. When that wedge opened, LSU shot the gap and eventually earned a re-commitment from the talented Stevens.
So Georgia finished third behind LSU and Alabama for a 5-star prospect? Is anyone thinking ‘Yada Yada and Move on” right about now? If so, what I’ve shared so far is akin to writing about a hard-fought game that somebody won 42-28 AND waiting until the sixth paragraph to chronicle what the score was at one point.
Georgia led for Stevens as recently as two months ago. Big. Just how big? That’s a story unto itself.
Stevens was rated as the nation’s No. 2 safety prospect for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
There’s an insider’s language I’ve established over the last year reporting about recruiting for DawgNation. When the decisions of prospects come up with peers I respect in this industry, there’s a saying that usually ends the discussions on top players from time to time.
Remember “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings?” (Hat tip to Yogi Berra.) Well, there the phrase “a prospect’s recruiting “ain’t” over until the commitment video is filmed.”
Me: Does School X still have a chance? Is he close to making up his mind?
Peer reporter: Nah, man. That one is over. The commitment video was filmed last week.
I bring that up because this decision was over. Stevens filmed a commitment video with SEC Country and Dawg Nation and was going to Georgia. Of course, that information was kept very close to the vest.
I was pretty sure at one point the only way Stevens would not go to Georgia would be if the program shut down. But all of that changed right around mid-June.
What happened? Stevens said it wasn’t anything Georgia did or didn’t do. There just came a point when summer visits to Alabama and Auburn changed his perspective a bit. Stevens said Alabama even led for him for about two weeks. Nick Saban’s reputation with sending big athletic safeties like him to the NFL had a lot to do with that.
But then came LSU. It was home. He has beloved cousins and family and grandparents and great-grandparents in Louisiana. He grew up about two hours away from Baton Rouge before his family moved away to Tennessee. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder has established strong bonds with LSU director of recruiting Austin Thomas and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond.
The Stevens family is thinking about moving back to Louisiana to follow his college career. That is at least being discussed. The Oakland High School (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) senior also said he will only take one official visit now. That will just be to LSU.
There was definitely a time when Stevens seemed very set on playing at Georgia. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
This story contains some very interesting information and I ran it by Stevens before I printed it here. Not because I wanted to show folks how hot-hot-and-hotter he was for certain schools. But because I think it can help others understand why players tend to struggle with these decisions.
When millionaire polished recruiters match wits with impressionable high school boys, the tale of the tape is pretty lopsided.
And yet Stevens handled some real adversity in the fourth quarter of his decision with this one. He even managed that with class by making sure he told Georgia assistant coach Mel Tucker about his final choice and thanked him for everything.
“I was leaning toward two schools and those schools did a great job of recruiting me,” Stevens said. “So I did my research and they did great trying to persuade me. But LSU always had that special place in my heart and I listened to it here. … Everyone knows I grew up an LSU fan. LSU was my first love and I went back to it.”
He wanted to make sure the Georgia folks knew he wasn’t scared of competition at safety. He also made sure to point out how well Tucker and Kirby Smart recruited him to Georgia.
“Coach Tucker and Coach Smart did their job,” Stevens said. “I can’t say they had any mishaps or anything. If Georgia fans would think that after this Coach Smart and Coach Tucker aren’t doing their jobs because they missed out on a recruit, then they don’t know what they are talking about. They are great guys and great leaders and I feel like we will be meeting them in the SEC championship one day if not in the playoff.”
I also noticed the LSU rope that was attached to his mother’s keys on Monday in Murfreesboro. Tandra D. Stevens told me she attached a purple LSU lanyard to her keys prior to her son’s first commitment to the school last year.
She never changed it after he de-committed and then thought very seriously about Georgia and Alabama. So when he returned back to his first choice, she never needed to switch it out.
There’s an unwritten rule there: Always pay very close attention to what Mom is thinking.
Stevens grew tight with Georgia’s commits
I asked Stevens what opponent he was looking forward to playing in college. He said Georgia, but there was no spite or venom to that.
He laughed when that subject came up. Even flashed a huge smile. The odds are fairly good that LSU might meet Georgia in a future SEC championship game. The Bulldogs are also set to travel to LSU in 2018 because of the SEC’s rotating schedule for out-of-division opponents.
He mentioned UGA commits Trey Blount, Jaden Hunter and Richard LeCounte III.
“Going against guys like that would be awesome,” Stevens said. “I got to build a relationship with them. I’m going to say right now Georgia at one time had the most elite message with players in one group chat at one point. Saying that I was a part of that group chat at one point was an honor. Being able to face all of them in that SEC championship one day would mean I’m not only living my dream out but they are all living out theirs, too. I want that for those guys, too. I think it would be a good game.”
Stevens made a point to return to the group message on Sunday night and let those UGA commits know which way he was leaning. He also wanted all of them to know how thankful he was those guys welcomed him as a friend while he was seriously considering playing in Athens.
A thing that does make me go ‘hmmm’
This might be a case of Smart and the Georgia coaches living right. It may be just circumstance and dumb luck.
But the reporter in me can’t help but question the timing of Georgia gaining a commitment the same day it fell short for another high-profile recruit. I bring that up because in the hours before Stevens made his decision Georgia was able to flip hyper-athletic defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt away from South Carolina to join the Class of 2017.
Remember when UGA lost out on 5-star athlete Demetris Robertson back in May? Well, it just so happened that the Bulldogs somehow were able to offset that downer with the commitment of Pace Academy four-star receiver Trey Blount later that afternoon.
That’s just good PR. Especially with a corporate brand. Got a bad quarterly report coming up? Then fire off a press release touting the company’s latest innovation. I see some of that at work here.
Am I overthinking it? Maybe. Likely. But every time I think that’s a reach I remind myself just how well-planned every little recruiting aspect of the Georgia program has been so far under Smart.
The man has his black belt in the little things. That’s evident.
Side note on UGA’s latest commitment
I wrote about Wyatt a few weeks back and Towers High coach Brian Montgomery said Smart told him the two best defensive tackles in Georgia this year were Wyatt and Lee County (and Michigan commit) Aubrey Solomon.
So Georgia got one of the two tackles it wanted in a down year for defensive tackles in the state and the Southeast in general. I feel only the five-star quarterback is more important to a recruiting class than a bunch of big and fast defensive linemen, but don’t fret about it.
Keep in mind UGA absolutely loaded up on defensive tackles with the Class of 2016.
I would not be surprised if players wishing to stay in that group message at Georgia might force the staff to take just Wyatt at defensive tackle for 2017. The Bulldogs might take one more, but this flip gives the staff some flexibility. Georgia won’t have reach for a lesser talent just to add depth at defensive tackle now that Wyatt is on the board.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him 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.