ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt needed a win, and more than a few. The way the season finished, and with the fire the Georgia coach was taking, Richt needed something, anything, to give fans hope.
Three days before national signing day, it’s happening. Richt already has a few of those critical recruiting wins, and several more could be on the way.
On Friday morning, Ray Drew approached a podium in Thomasville and made official what he had decided long ago: Drew, one of the nation’s top defensive recruits, was headed to Georgia.
Then he called on a series of fellow prospects -- Isaiah Crowell, John Jenkins, Jeoffrey Pagan and Antonio Richardson -- to join him in one of the nation’s fastest-finishing classes.
Whether or not those stars choose Georgia – and at least the first three are reported to be leaning that way – it seems the Bulldogs are on their way to one of their best classes in years.
“They have a chance to make this Mark Richt’s best class ever,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
The addition of Drew means Georgia now has commitments from five of Rivals’ top 100 national prospects, and four of the top 60. Crowell, a tailback from Carver High, is ranked No. 23, Pagan (a defensive end) is No. 42, and Richardson, an offensive lineman, is No. 70.
Then there’s Jenkins, a junior college nose tackle, who many project to be an immediate starter at a critical need position for the Bulldogs. Jenkins is set to announce his decision on Saturday.
“The way the season ended was not the way they wanted,” said Chad Simmons, the southeast recruiting analyst for Scout.com, who follows Georgia recruiting closely.
“To bounce back and to recruit like this, to finish this way, to still show that drive and this hunger … it’s huge. If they sign this kind of class, it almost puts that losing season out of people’s minds for awhile. And it puts a positive spin going into 2011.”
So how did this happen? A combination of two big factors:
It was a stronger year than usual for Georgia prospects.
Richt and his staff, probably sensing that 2011 will be critical to their futures, worked extremely hard.
One sign of that: Georgia signed 20 or fewer players the past two years but now has 23 commitments. The NCAA limit is 28, and the Bulldogs can enroll 27. (The official limit is 25, but early enrollees Christian LeMay and Chris Conley count toward last year.)
LeMay, a quarterback, is from North Carolina. But mostly, the Bulldogs have been able to accumulate miles without leaving the state.
In past years, the Bulldogs scored big with out-of-state marquee recruits like A.J. Green, Knowshon Moreno and Matt Stafford. This year’s class marks a return of sorts to Georgia’s roots, with a focus on locking up the best players from the talent-rich state.
“I think last year they were stung a little bit by some of the things that happened late. There was a lot of criticism for losing the No. 1 player in the state of Georgia,” said Farrell, referring to receiver Da’Rick Rogers’ late defection to Tennessee.
“(This year) it is just a complete home run in the state of Georgia,” Farrell said. “I think it was a concerted effort to get back to basics. But this year made it easier to do that.”
The closeness of the recruits, in proximity and friendship, also helped. The players knew each other well from camps, official visits and social media. So once a few started committing -- such as Damian Swann in early January -- it had sort of a domino effect.
Simmons credits Drew with being an unofficial ringleader of the group. And Farrell credits the Georgia coaches with taking advantage of the situation.
“They can’t go into schools with a “G” on their sweater and say Herschel Walker used to play here and that’s enough,” Farrell said. “But these kids all really like each other. They really bonded with each other. And what the Georgia staff did was get them together and say, ‘Look if you all come here … You can do something special. If you all go to different schools, it’s never going to happen.’ ”
It remains to be seen whether the players will have enough of an immediate impact to extend the Richt era. What does appear certain is that many of these players will play right away -- partly because of their talent and partly out of necessity.
“There’s no waiting anymore,” Farrell said. “Richt knows redshirting is great for the next coach. But he’s got to get the best guys on the field now.”