ATHENS – Last week this intrepid reporter, as part of our Next Generation series, got in his car and drove to see future Georgia linebacker Chauncey Manac in his hometown of Homerville. I drove, and then drove some more, through long back roads, and into the swampy southeast Georgia town, where a somewhat incredulous high school senior awaited.
“You drove all the way down here just to talk to me?” Manac said, smiling.
Oh, it was a haul. It was also another reminder that Georgia’s ability to keep its bountiful football talent in state should never be taken for granted.
It’s also a four-hour drive from Athens to Savannah, hometown of Demetris Robertson, now famously headed all the way out to California. While that’s not exactly the most natural geographic path for a high school football player, it also shouldn’t be a shock that someone didn’t decide to “stay home” when that home is almost the same amount driving as a plane ride to San Francisco.
Georgia is still Georgia, and there is that pull to the home-state university. Even if you’re in southwest Georgia, in the opposite corner of the state from Athens, you see the G on license plates, and Bulldog fans everywhere. The Bulldogs are by far the most popular team in the state, which is why they’re able to go everywhere in the state and recruit.
But it is a very big state, with rivals on every border but the ocean. (Nick Saban somewhat surprisingly has yet to announce plans to hold a satellite camp on Tybee Island.) In fact, prospects who grew up in west Georgia are often actually a closer drive to the campuses of Auburn and Alabama than to Athens.
Instead of calling out Kirby Smart (and before him Mark Richt) for not getting in-state recruits, maybe they should get more credit for certain ones they did get: Terry Godwin’s hometown of Hogansville is an hour closer to Auburn, the school that came second in the running to Georgia for Godwin’s services a year ago. Trent Thompson, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2015, hailed from Albany, almost four hours from Athens, and a hotbed of Auburn and Florida State fans and recruiting activity.
Manac’s hometown of, well, Homerville, is closer to the campuses of Florida and Florida State, both of which are a little over two hours away. The administrative assistant at the main office at Clinch County High School is an Alabama fan. Manac himself didn’t grow up a Georgia fan, or of any college football team. Asked why so many people still grow up a Georgia fan despite Homerville being so far away, Manac smiled and said: “Your guess is as good as mine.”
There are obviously some cases where Georgia just didn’t get it done with in-state talent. The current Clemson quarterback stands out. Even then, Deshaun Watson’s alma mater of Gainesville High School is only slightly closer to Athens (one hour) than Clemson (90 minutes).
But for every major in-state prospect Georgia has missed on, it has probably made up for it by getting an out-of-state prospect: Todd Gurley, A.J. Green, Aaron Murray, Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno all say hi.
And this year’s team could see Jacob Eason (Washington State) handing off to Sony Michel (Florida) or passing to Jeb Blazevich (North Carolina), Isaiah McKenzie (Florida) or Michael Chigbu (Louisiana), while being blocked by offensive tackles Greg Pyke (Maryland) and Tyler Catalina (Massachusetts).
A few months ago at the Macon Touchdown Club, a fan asked Smart why so many Georgia natives were on rosters of other teams.
“You gonna give me extra scholarships?” Smart answered, pointing to the SEC signing limit that essentially is 25 players per year, as well as the overall 85-player scholarship limit.
Then Smart made a point to illustrate that Georgia will always be fertile recruiting ground, for many schools: While he was at Alabama, the staff there looked at the first and second string of every SEC school and found that the most players hailed from Georgia.
“Georgia’s No. 1. All right?” Smart said. “So everybody is coming in to come get players.”
This past weekend Georgia had five players drafted, three of whom are from Georgia, along with John Theus (Florida) and Keith Marshall (North Carolina). Through the years the Bulldogs have consistently been among the top five alma maters of NFL players, with players it recruited both in and out of state.
Build a recruiting wall? Sounds great. But everyone who’s ever coached at Georgia knows that’s not just difficult, but impossible. You just need to get the best players you can get, and good ones are going to leave the state. That’ll never change. As long as Georgia is getting a good amount of them, there’s nothing to worry about.