<
>

State of Georgia becoming SEC hotbed

Over the years, the states of Texas, Florida and California have led the way in terms of feeding prospects to Division I programs. However, the state of Georgia now is making a case to turn that trio into a quartet, especially when you consider that 55 of the 209 SEC commitments to date are from the Peach State. That number is more than double the prospects committed to the SEC from the Sunshine State.

Rick Tomberlin knows the state of Georgia as well as anyone. He has coached in the state for the past 28 years and won three state titles.

"I have been lucky enough to coach in every classification in this state, and the one thing I know is that football has a passion here in Georgia, particularly south Georgia," said Tomberlin, who was the coach at Lowndes, Washington County and Valdosta before taking over at Springfield (Ga.) Effingham County. "Then we saw the emergence of the Atlanta area. Now I would say it's very strong statewide. There are good players all over with good coaches, supportive fans and lots of resources. I am proud of the football in Georgia, and it's only going to get better."

Since the early 1990s, there has been a great population boom in the South, particularly Georgia, and specifically metro-Atlanta. That, coupled with the talent and quality coaching throughout the state, has created more and more college football prospects each season, or so it seems.

Tennessee assistant coach Lance Thompson played his high school football at Riverdale High School in Georgia and has recruited the state for nearly two decades. The numbers don't shock him whatsoever, either.

"Georgia has good players and good coaches. Football is important," Thompson said. "Georgia is centrally located within that conference so to speak, and it's kind of the heart of the SEC. Everyone pulls kids from Georgia."

You have to take into account the state itself and where it's located. While it's not in the middle of SEC country, you can make a strong case that the Peach State is the main artery of the SEC. For the past two recruiting classes, the Peach State had 60 and 70 prospects, respectively, sign with SEC schools.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof -- who played his high school ball at Lawrenceville (Ga.) Central Gwinnett high school, was a player and assistant coach at Georgia Tech and head coach at Duke Roof, and has recruited his home state since 1989 -- is preparing for Georgia to be a battle ground for the rest of the year.

"Those numbers are a little surprising, yet I also know there has been a population boom in Georgia and you have some great coaching and programs there," Roof said. "I also think that 9/11 and the way the economy is now that kids and people are reluctant to travel far away. Plus, you have the attraction of the SEC, and Georgia is practically in the middle of it."

Coach James Franklin and Vanderbilt currently have seven of their 17 commitments from the Peach State.

"The state of Georgia is so respected," Franklin said. "The high school coaches, schools and kids make it easy. The coaches there get it. The kids are prepared and successful. They are disciplined and structured. For us, it makes a whole lot of sense. The state is close to Nashville, and those kids grow up on SEC football. Plus, it's easier for us to get kids on campus from Georgia than Florida."

Mark Crews has been at the Snellville (Ga.) Brookwood football powerhouse for the past quarter-century, and he considers what Franklin said a compliment to the state, its programs, its coaches and its kids. He knows, at least at Brookwood, they do their best in every aspect to develop the student-athlete.

"We are all striving for the best in everything," said Crews, who has been coach at Brookwood for the past 10 years. "[Football] scholarships are a byproduct of what we do. We try and develop these kids with a great balance of academics and athletics. Here at Brookwood, we have excelled at both, and the academics and athletics have peacefully coexisted. I think over the past 25 years, only one of our players has had to go the junior college route."

Tomberlin and Crews have much in common with a philosophy that seems to permeate throughout much of the state. It doesn't matter whether you coach at a football power in south Georgia or metro-Atlanta.

"We are career coaches in Georgia and very passionate about what we are doing," Tomberlin said. "It's about our work and job. We are all involved in the feeder systems, the middle school program, the strength programs, tutoring, everything. We want them to be prepared in all facets, and I know I take great pride in sending those guys to schools. That's who Georgia coaches are."

Even LSU and Arkansas get their shares from Georgia. You can bet that if those two programs were a tad closer to the state, they would do even better.

"Georgia is not the closest state to Fayetteville, Ark., but we have two coaches there that recruit for the Razorbacks," Arkansas recruiting coordinator Tim Horton said. "The quality there is as good as you will find anywhere in the country. I can tell you that we have a lot of respect for that state and we have had success there. In a sense, Texas is our Georgia just because of our proximity. And if we were any closer, you would see Arkansas in Georgia even more."

It's interesting, though, that this time around, coach Mark Richt and the Bulldogs have landed only two of the state's top 20 prospects in defensive tackles Jonathan Taylor (Millen, Ga./Jenkins County) and John Atkins (Thomson, Ga./Thomson). Regardless, the Bulldogs have 15 commitments, 11 from in-state recruits, and are ranked No. 16 in the country.

Most of the Peach State's top prospects already have made their decisions, and as you can imagine, most are headed to schools in the SEC. Alabama has landed ESPNU 150 members Brandon Greene (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove), cornerback Geno Smith (Atlanta, Ga./St. Pius X) and linebacker Dillon Lee (Buford, Ga./Buford) as well as defensive tackle Dakota Ball (Pepperell, Ga./Pepperell) and athlete Kenyan Drake (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove). Auburn has ESPNU 150 athlete Ricky Parks (Hogansville, Ga./Callaway) and cornerback Joshua Holsey (Fairburn, Ga./Creekside) as well as four-star wide receiver Ja'Quay Williams (Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek).

Of the remaining 19, only four are uncommitted, and three others are headed to the ACC: Florida State linebacker Ukeme Eligwe (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stone Mountain), Miami linebacker Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson) and Georgia Tech defensive end Francis Kallon (Lawrenceville, Ga./Central Gwinnett).

The state's top prospect, ESPNU 150 linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) remains undecided, but it appears to be a three-way battle at this point among Georgia, Florida and FSU. Safety Chaz Elder (College Park, Ga./Banneker), ESPNU 150 offensive guard Vadal Alexander (Buford, Ga./Buford) and defensive end Jordan Jenkins (Hamilton, Ga./Harris County) also remain undecided. Elder favors South Carolina, Vandy and Georgia while Alexander is down to LSU, Auburn and Alabama. Jenkins has a final five, and they all are SEC schools: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee. If things hold as is, that means 16 of the state's top 20 will sign with SEC schools.

"It's just the fact that it is the best conference," Jenkins said. "Every conference says they are like the SEC, but they are not. Playing in the SEC is an honor, and me being able to experience that is something that many don't come by, so I'm going to work my butt off to prove that I belong in the SEC. The last thing I have to say is that everybody respects the SEC."

Southern Miss on track

Southern Miss doesn't play in a big conference or get a lot of publicity, but it is right on course in the fourth year of coach Larry Fedora's regime.

"It's been slow and quiet for us. We now have depth on the offensive and defensive front where we were once depleted," Fedora said. "We have upgraded the talent level at all positions and continue to do so. I think we are right on track."

Of course, this is done through recruiting. While Fedora is blessed to be in a region loaded with talent, speed and athleticism, he's also in the middle of SEC country.

"The only thing that has become easier is our philosophy and systems have been in place now for four years," Fedora said. "Recruiting is never easy because you want to continue to upgrade and get better, and the only way to do that is to get better players. So it's a challenge every time.

"We compete mainly against Ole Miss and Mississippi in this state. But don't forget that LSU, Alabama and Auburn recruit this state, and we go there. We are in the middle of the frying pan with all these kids. We just go out, identify the kids we want to target. We don't care who we are up against."

Fedora and his Eagles scored a big recruiting coup earlier this fall when they landed ESPNU 150 offensive line prospect Caleb Peterson (Auburn, Ala./Auburn), who picked Southern Miss over many SEC schools, giving the Eagles a big boost, especially with credibility. While Peterson is just another recruit for teams such as Alabama and Auburn, it was a big deal for this program that continues to fight for respect.

"I asked him [Fedora] point blank how long he would be there, and he said he has no plans on ever leaving until he gets that program to the BCS level and to a BCS bowl," Peterson said. "That's his goal.

"They also have tradition and they are going to expand on their facilities. Southern Miss is going to be a good place for me. It's a good school. I also love how they are recruiting. They do a nice job and are putting together another good class."

Southern Miss has 19 commitments to date, headlined by Peterson. The Eagles also have a handful of three-star pledges in defensive tackle Dalvin Craft (Atmore, Ala./Escambia County), athlete Calvin Perry (Bessemer, Ala./Bessemer Academy) and quarterback Johnathan Wallace (Phenix City, Ala./Central). Fedora is still hoping to close with more help at wide receiver, running back and linebacker.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.