EDITOR’S NOTE: This continues a regular feature on DawgNation called “Throwback Thursday.” It offers a chance to revisit the recruiting stories of former UGA greats. The last few installments have been on crowd favorite RB Musa Smith, all-time leading receiver Terrence Edwards, tackling machine Tony Gilbert, 1984 defensive team captain Donald Chumley and undersized linebacker Rennie Curran. This week’s feature catches up with a top tight end from the Vince Dooley era.
HINESVILLE, Ga. — Former UGA tight end Kirk Warner is now a successful high school coach at Liberty County High School in South Georgia. He still looks like he could play.
Warner also fit the part of an asset at one’s side while strolling down a dark alley. Few high school coaches offer the chiseled 6-foot-3 frame he still does.
His recruitment to UGA serves as a fitting time warp when compared with a 4-star junior on his current team. Richard LeCounte III is rated as the nation’s No. 2 athlete for the Class of 2017. He is a tremendous player in every sense of the term.
Warner’s story is old school. His 4-star, do-everything, junior’s recruiting timeline is like the new Math that finally reached the schoolhouse steps.
LeCounte has a 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical. He got his first SEC offer after the first game of his freshman season. It was a dazzling debut. LeCounte picked off two passes on a night when college coaches came to see senior Raekwon McMillian, before he signed with Ohio State.
“I could tell Richard about my recruiting experiences to try and help him,” Warner said. “But it is like night and day from 1985 to 2015. Back then, I was highly recruited but he had already been recruited harder than I was prior to his junior year. But the thing I tell him is you always look the coaches eye-to-eye. If a coach won’t look you eye-to-eye, then he’s not square with you and he’s not telling you the truth. I tell him to always them the truth to those coaches, too.”
Lots of things have changed. That part has not.
Warner didn’t set a Top 10 or a Top 5. Everyone was a loud verbal. There was no need to de-commit or have a press conference in Bleckley County with hats on the table and at least five or six 1-on-1 interviews that followed.
He was the youngest of five children. His mother was a single parent.
“In my mind I always knew I would probably go to Georgia,” said Warner, who’s in his 14th season as the head coach at Liberty County. “But in the recruiting process when you see other places you get impressed by the variety. Georgia was the only place I saw for the longest time, but I actually really liked Auburn. Auburn was a close second to Georgia. But it wasn’t any surprise with me. I basically knew that when the University of Georgia offered me that was where I wanted to spend the next four or five years of my life.”
Warner’s offer came early for his era. He went to a summer camp at UGA heading into his sophomore year and lit it up. He was already 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds.
The Bleckley County standout had great hands, weighed 205 pounds and could still run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Those measures alone would still attract SEC offers in today’s world.
“The colleges couldn’t offer me back then that early, but my first offer came on September 1 of my junior year,” Warner said. “That was the earliest they could offer me.”
He was offered as a tight end but bulked up to 235 pounds by his senior year. When UGA linebackers coach Mike Ekeler visited LeCounte III recently, he sized up where a player of Warner’s size would line up at UGA in today’s game.
“He said I would be an inside linebacker now in today’s recruiting world,” Warner said. “They like 6-foot-3 and 225-to-230 pound guys that are athletic to play inside linebacker now.”
Social media is the biggest difference in the 30-year span between their recruiting eras. LeCounte told Dawgnation.com he receives about 10-to-12 messages a day from Ohio State coaches who hope to win him to their school. Warner doubts he talked to 10-to-12 coaches on the phone during his senior season at Bleckley County.
“I might have gotten that many letters my senior year,” Warner said. “College coaches didn’t start calling until it got closer to Signing Day but not during my senior season.”
Warner said he would speak to coaches at UGA, Auburn, Georgia Tech and South Carolina about once per week until he committed in August of 1984 prior to the dawn of his senior season.
“The only coach I talked to after I committed was the one at Georgia,” Warner said. “Everyone else stopped calling me after I committed to Georgia. College coaches weren’t as persistent back then as they are today.”
Warner said that once he committed, he talked to his recruiter at UGA once per week. That was future UGA head coach Ray Goff. He did take official visits to Auburn, Georgia Tech and South Carolina after he had already committed to UGA.
The 1984 Class AA all-state pick was an impressive basketball player so he didn’t want to take too many college visits which would dilute his senior year on the hardwood. He averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game and was named the Class AA Player of the Year.
Warner played in 42 games at UGA and led the team in catches with 30 his senior year in 1989. He also tied for the team lead in touchdown catches as a sophomore. That’s well before NFL stalwarts like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez revolutionized his position as a receiving threat.
Former UGA head coach Hugh Durham even entertained the thought of him playing for the basketball team once his football eligibility was up. He was that kind of an athlete.
“The best memory of my Georgia career would have to be beating Auburn in 1986,” Warner said. “Our starting quarterback James Jackson had his grandmother pass. He couldn’t play and his backup led us to the win. That was the Wayne Johnson game and the night Auburn turned the hoses on our fans.”
Warner shared an honest thought that shows the lure of the in-state school.
“Coach (Ray) Goff recruited me,” Warner said. “I knew I wanted to go to Georgia whether Ray Goff was the head coach or Coach Vince Dooley was the head coach. I just knew I wanted to be at Georgia. Now when you do see other places you do start to go ‘Let me think about this’ but in the end it becomes a fading thought.”
Jeff Sentell covers 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.