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Isaiah Wilson’s story should be a model for UGA’s recruiting efforts

Brandon Adams

Georgia right tackle Isaiah Wilson — then a 5-star recruit — was one of the centerpiece members of UGA’s 2017 class. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native also represented something of a curiosity for the Bulldogs.

It was seen as a bit odd at the time for UGA to go to New York City to find a prospect. Seventeen of the Bulldogs 26 signees that year were from Georgia. However, what was weird then is seemingly normal now.

UGA has signed players from 14 states in the two recruiting classes since Wilson’s, and only seven of the Bulldogs’ 2019 signees were from the home state.

It could be said Wilson started a trend. Yet it’s the potential of a different trend in which Wilson has contributed that might have the strongest benefit to UGA.

Wilson is an example of the good things that can happen when a player chooses to be patient.

Wilson was the No. 5 offensive tackle in 2017, and the No. 16 player in the country. Yet Wilson didn’t play in his first year out of high school. He took a redshirt because of what appeared to be growing pains adjusting to the heat of the deep South and the pace of SEC play.

“I thought he was another guy, that as they got into the heat, they kind of wilted a little bit… didn’t play with the speed and the tenacity,” Smart said after a tough practice for Wilson in 2017. “I’m a little disappointed they couldn’t push through mentally better, and push through the heat. [Wilson] was a guy that struggled with that.”

Wilson readily admits that first season presented him with some challenges.

“I think my first year — like any high school senior going to an SEC program for college — you have to get over a little hump, and adjust and acclimate to the SEC,” Wilson said. “My first year was a learning curve.”

However, as Wilson was learning the ropes, another freshman offensive tackle was thriving.

Andrew Thomas arrived as part of Wilson’s signing class and made an immediate name for himself — earning Freshman All-America honors as starting right tackle — despite being a lower-rated recruit than Wilson.

It’s the kind of moment that could discourage some players, and possibly make them wonder if they made the wrong college choice. Yet Wilson seemed to take it all in stride and keep the facts in proper perspective.

“Whatever’s best for the team is what I want,” Wilson said. “My freshman year I wasn’t ready to play. I sat down and I learned how to be ready to play.”

It appears Wilson was a fast learner. The reviews for his practice performances last summer were almost the exact opposite from the previous year’s criticism.

“This time last year… he was struggling in the heat,” Smart said last August. “Now he’s over that. He’s playing quicker. He’s playing faster… I think the year of development really helped him… He’s performing at a much better level.”

Last year’s offensive coordinator Jim Chaney noticed that progression too.

“From where he walked in the door to where he is now has been an incredible jump,” Chaney said. “He’s done a real good job of working his butt off. It’s very important to him.”

The work Wilson apparently did in practice paid off on the field. He matched Thomas’ feat from the previous season by also becoming a Freshman All-American as a redshirt freshman as UGA’s right tackle last season.

“[My] second year, they gave me the opportunity to go out there and play ball, and that’s all I wanted to do,” Wilson said.

It doesn’t appear UGA “gave” Wilson anything. It seems he earned it, and the year waiting to play in 2017 was part of that process.

Wilson’s story should serve as poignant reminder — especially in the age of the transfer portal —that good things truly can come to those who wait, and the inability to play right away isn’t necessarily an indicator of a player heading towards the dreaded “bust” label.

Ironically, another UGA offensive lineman is now seemingly traveling down a similar path to Wilson’s.

Jamaree Salyer came in as a 5-star prospect in UGA’s 2018 class. Yet Salyer saw less playing time last season than two other freshmen — Cade Mays and Trey Hill — despite being the highest-rated recruit of the three.

Now it could be Salyer’s turn for a second-year emergence.

“He’s [the] most improved offensive lineman,” Smart said of Salyer last week. “The biggest jump has been that guy. You kept waiting on it because you knew you were getting a really talented player… He’s challenging some guys. He’s making other guys work hard.”

Wilson has seen that from Salyer too.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Wilson said. “He’s going to be a great player for this program.”

What is it that makes Wilson and Salyer choose to stick it out and fight for playing time in an age when plenty of players tuck and run?

It’s difficult to say for sure, but the right attitude and willingness to be a team player certainly helps.

“I want everyone on the team to win,” Wilson said. “I don’t care who you are. If you’re on this team — If you’re in red and black, and you’re wearing that ‘G,’ and you’re out their grinding with me I want you to win.”

If other UGA players — and future recruits — follow Wilson’s example, winning shouldn’t be a problem.

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