Maybe Mark Richt's "Dream Team" idea was only a marketing gimmick, but even if it was, it worked like gangbusters. National Signing Day 2011 gave Georgia football the biggest adrenaline shot it's gotten in months, with a pair of five-star Peach State residents leading a class Rivals is ranking in the nation's top five -- and that might be the best aggregation of raw talent Richt has assembled since arriving in Athens.
The Headliners. Columbus running back Isaiah Crowell's much-publicized commitment put the capper on Richt & Company's tremendously productive recruiting effort. A five-star recruit ranked by some analysts as the state's No. 1 prospect, the 5'11", 210-pound Crowell combines size with breakaway speed as well as decent hands, exactly the kind of combination necessary to perk up a running game that's been inconsistent at best since the early departure of Knowshon Moreno for the NFL. And Richt seems pretty committed to giving him a chance to contribute from the get-go.
While Crowell's signing announcement bowed to nobody's in terms of flair -- hey, why don't we have bulldog puppies present for all our recruits' press events? -- it could only match, not surpass, the announcement of Thomasville DE Ray Drew in terms of suspense. At 6'5", 243, Drew is not only a fierce pass rusher with the speed and versatility to fill Justin Houston's substantial shoes on the outside, he's an ordained Baptist minister, which should lend itself to all kinds of wonderful nicknames as his career progresses.
The Need-Fillers. A.J. Green, too, leaves big shoes to fill, but that doesn't mean there weren't plenty of recruits lining up for a shot to fill them. Leading a packed class of receivers is 6'1", 210 Justin Scott-Wesley of Camilla, Ga., a strong wideout with 4.4 speed who also ran track at Mitchell County High School. Scott-Wesley set a new state record in the 100-meter dash last spring and has "deep threat" written all over him -- exactly what Georgia will be missing most with Green and Kris Durham departing for the NFL.
With Zach Mettenberger gone from the team and Logan Gray transferring, the Dawgs also needed to bolster the QB corps, and they got a superb talent in Christian LeMay (6'2", 200), who threw for 3,296 yards, 44 touchdowns and only two picks his junior season at Butler High in Matthews, N.C. LeMay's journey to Athens has not been without controversy -- he elected to forego his senior year at Butler after an suspension for unspecified disciplinary reasons threatened to sideline him for most of football season -- but he's demonstrated a strong commitment to Georgia and will be a worthy partner to Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason when he arrives.
The Sleepers. In terms of blindside protection, those three QBs can't ask for much better than Zach DeBell, a 6'7", 265 offensive tackle out of Tarpon Springs, Fla. DeBell already has impressive size and top-notch footwork, and he could add as many as 30 pounds of additional muscle before working his way up the depth chart in Athens. As for the receiving corps, one of the few WR prospects who can hope to keep up with Justin Scott-Wesley at the track is Lee County's Sanford Seay, a fellow track star who checks in at 6'2", 198.
The Ones Who Got Away. Not too many Georgia targets fall into this category, thankfully, but it would've been nice to have landed Xzavier Dickson, an incredibly agile defensive end who wound up signing with Alabama. The Crimson Tide also snagged Asheville, N.C., defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, who decommitted from Clemson on Jan. 27 and was thought to be seriously considering the Dawgs.
The class is strongest in: Offensive linemen and defensive backs. Georgia has prepared itself well for the next offseason, which will see as many as four of this year's starting offensive linemen graduate. They've also finally ended Willie Martinez's confounding habit of recruiting safeties and corners shorter than 5'10" (all of the DBs in the 2011 class are six feet or taller).
The class is thinnest in: Running backs and defensive tackles. Obviously you can't complain about any class that includes Isaiah Crowell, but the Dawgs still have a lot of ground to make up in the running game and a limited number of RB candidates who will be able to make it happen. There's also the lingering question of whether they'll be able to find the mountainous, run-stuffing nose tackle Todd Grantham's 3-4 defensive front so desperately needs. Spalding County's 6'5", 295-pound Chris Mayes is a promising candidate, but he'll need to continue to bulk up to make it happen; the Dawgs would still really love to grab 6'4", 340-pound John Jenkins from the JUCO ranks. Jenkins will announce his commitment on Saturday.
Overall impressions. At a time when many Georgia fans were openly questioning whether Richt and his coaching staff had any fire left in their bellies, the coaches demonstrated that yes, they do. With Richt's crown jewel of a recruiting class joining one of the SEC's most experienced rosters for 2011, combined with massively improved training facilities and a new energy (and hardass attitude) provided by new strength and conditioning coordinator Joe Tereshinski Jr., there's a spark and a sense of hope surrounding this program that nobody could've dreamed of when the Dawgs were putting the finishing touches on the humiliating Liberty Bowl loss that dropped them to 6-7 barely a month ago.
It's also significant that Richt devoted extra effort specifically to locking down in-state players. Closing down the borders was one of Richt's first achievements upon arriving in Athens, but the wall he built around Georgia started to crumble a bit as tenacious recruiters such as Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and Gene Chizik found inroads into the Peach State. Richt's rebuilt wall isn't impregnable, but his recommitment to focusing on in-state talent certainly paid off.
Of course, the Richt regime still have to prove they know what to do with all this talent, and it remains to be seen whether that's the case. Still, the mere fact that they were able to assemble such a herculean recruiting class, snatching players out of the hands of recent title winner such as Alabama and Auburn in the process, shows that nobody in Athens is resting on their laurels. If nothing else, Bulldog Nation will be able to anticipate September 3's pivotal opener against Boise State in the Georgia Dome with something other than anxiety and dread.
Final list of signees:
David Andrews, OL, Norcross, Ga. (Wesleyan) ★★★
Sterling Bailey, DE, Gainesville, Ga. (East Hall) ★★★★
Devin Bowman, ATH (CB), Rossville, Ga. (Ridgeland) ★★★
Chris Conley, WR, Dallas, Ga. (North Paulding) ★★★
Watts Dantzler, OL, Dalton, Ga. (Dalton) ★★★
Zach DeBell, OL, Tarpon Springs, Fla. (Tarpon Springs) ★★★
Ray Drew, DE/OLB, Thomasville, Ga. (Thomas County Central) ★★★★★
Quintavious Harrow, DB, Columbus, Ga. (Carver) ★★★
Amarlo Herrera, LB, College Park, Ga. (North Clayton) ★★★★
Christian LeMay, QB, Matthews, N.C. (Butler) ★★★★
Hunter Long, OL, Eads, Tenn. (Briarcrest Christian) ★★★
Nick Marshall, ATH (DB), Rochelle, Ga. (Wilcox County) ★★★★
Chris Mayes, DT, Griffin, Ga. (Spalding) ★★★★
Malcolm Mitchell, CB, Valdosta, Ga. (Valdosta) ★★★★
Corey Moore, S, Griffin, Ga. (Griffin) ★★★★
Jay Rome, TE, Valdosta, Ga. (Valdosta) ★★★★
Chris Sanders, ATH (FS), Tucker, Ga. (Tucker) ★★★
Justin Scott-Wesley, WR, Camilla, Ga. (Mitchell County) ★★★★
Sanford Seay, WR, Leesburg, Ga. (Lee County) ★★★
Damian Swann, CB, Atlanta, Ga. (Grady) ★★★★
Nathan Theus, OL/LS, Jacksonville, Fla. (Bolles) ★★
Kent Turene, LB, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Boyd Anderson) ★★★
Xzavier Ward, OL, Moultrie, Ga. (Colquitt County) ★★★
Ramik Wilson, LB, Tampa, Fla. (Jefferson) ★★★★