ATLANTA -- Finally, Paul Johnson and his staff can breathe.
Their dipping, diving, twisting, turning rollercoaster ride of the 2011 recruitment process is now over.
“It’s a relief,” the Georgia Tech coach said during a news conference inside Midtown Atlanta’s posh Twelve Hotel on Wednesday night, “but basically, you start on the next year now.”
The practice of swaying the best possible talent to one’s school is a task that never ends.
Earlier in the day, after experiencing what some might classify one of the most dramatic recruiting seasons of any college team, Johnson announced the signings of 22 high school football prospects.
They are players who hail from Georgia and also call faraway states like Illinois and New Jersey home. According to one recruiting agency, most were rated 3-star prospects, a few were dubbed 2-star players and another received 4-star status.
“Somebody asked me about grading a class. Well, certainly, you’re going to give them an ‘A’ because you recruited them,” Johnson said during a morning event at Georgia Tech where assistants introduced the players to about 100 early-rising fans.
Some of the program’s supporters might disagree.
Of the big, but slightly smaller-than-anticipated class, eight of the signees were linebackers and none were defensive linemen. That point seemed to chafe even the staunchest followers of the program.
An informal polling of Yellow Jackets fans by The Telegraph on Twitter seemed to indicate that the lack of defensive linemen -- particularly defensive ends -- made the signing class less punchy than some had hoped.
To those criticisms, Johnson stood firm.
“Everybody’s screaming about defensive linemen,” he said. “We have three defensive linemen on our (3-4, three-linemen) defense and 11 guys on scholarship. In a perfect world, you might have 12. That would probably be the max.
“(Besides) some of those linebackers probably can grow into defensive ends.”
Assistants cited about four who could, including Tampa, Fla., signee Anthony Harrell and East Hall’s Chaz Cheeks.
“There’s no telling what he could be,” recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Andy McCollum said about Cheeks.
All of that said, however, Johnson’s perfect world might have been a flip and a flop and maybe one more flip from becoming reality anyway.
Three weeks ago, after hosting one of Georgia Tech’s best official visit weekends in Johnson’s four years as head coach, the Yellow Jackets were on Cloud 9.
Four big-name recruits, including one of the nation’s biggest -- 5-star defensive end Stephon Tuitt -- had just given them verbal commitments. The perfect class, the highest-rated class in recent Georgia Tech history, seemed close to being complete.
About 30 hours after Tuitt had committed, however, all of that changed.
Tuitt dropped Georgia Tech a day after his commitment, going back to Notre Dame, the program that had long wooed him. He stayed with the Fighting Irish, and left the Yellow Jackets hanging, forcing them to search for a replacement.
Within the next two weeks, two more potential defensive line studs rejected the Yellow Jackets, as Trey Flowers and Tre Jackson de-committed. Flowers ultimately signed with Arkansas, while Jackson signed with Florida State
Initial reports about Jackson indicated that he was dropped from a scholarship by Johnson and did not de-commit. Without specifically naming Jackson, Johnson said there was a situation where a player gave the Yellow Jackets indications he was thinking about going elsewhere.
“The situation that happened did not happen the way it’s been reported for forever,” Johnson said. “He wouldn’t take a phone call, wouldn’t return a phone call. It was pretty clear that if he’s not taking a phone call, he’s not coming to our school.
“My basic policy is: don’t do that to us on the last week of signing when we don’t have a chance to replace.”
Jackson fell off Georgia Tech’s committed list last week.