ATHENS, Ga. -- Early enrollees are typically a convenience at Georgia. This year they're a necessity.
It's no secret that because of various forms of roster attrition, Georgia was well below the NCAA's limit of 85 scholarship players this season. And with 21 seniors leaving and multiple underclassmen possibly joining them, Mark Richt's staff is preparing to bring in a huge signing class -- including what a program source on Thursday morning said would be "at least 10, probably 12" early enrollees who will start classes Monday.
Although SEC rules dictate that programs can sign only 25 players each year, the Bulldogs' smallish signing class of 19 recruits from 2012, the ability to count some early enrollees backward toward previous classes and the Bulldogs' considerable room under the NCAA's 85-player limit will allow this class to number in the 30s.
"We knew we could sign more than 25 in this class, so that's what we were working on pretty hard," Richt said.
Replenishing the team's roster depth with potentially the largest signing class in Richt's UGA tenure was contingent on getting at least 10 January enrollees. And while getting cleared to enroll early has gone down to the 11th hour with some prospects, Richt's staff is already assured of achieving the double-digit total of early enrollees they had been seeking.
The newcomers will also add quality to Georgia's spring practices in addition to their improving the team's overall depth. Four of Georgia's five highest-rated commitments in the ESPN player rankings -- a group that includes Under Armour All-Americans Tramel Terry and Brice Ramsey, U.S. Army All-American Tray Matthews and junior college receiver Jonathan Rumph -- will be among the new Bulldogs attending classes in the new semester.
"They're going to have the advantage of going through spring football and get coached by the coaches before camp starts," Richt said. "The other guys, they come in the summer and there's a lot of things they can learn from their teammates and from film study and the way we have our teaching tapes put together. You can learn a lot and you can get ahead of the game if you want to.
"But to go through spring and hear it from the coach exactly the way he wants it, experience it and then have a whole summer to work on those kinds of things, it is definitely a big thing."
Georgia had never brought in more than six early enrollees under Richt before this year, but the depth concerns caused the coaches to target players who could join the team in January -- on top of their No. 1 desire to bring in players with the talent to compete in the SEC.
Enter players like new linebacker Ryne Rankin, who began preparing to early enroll somewhere as an eighth grader, when he took a high-school-level geometry course. And the solid student continued to advance through his curriculum at an accelerated rate, to the point that he attended community college during his final semester of high school.
"Once I got in high school, I didn't mess with any electives and I knocked out all the PE and the core classes I needed to get out of the way," Rankin said. " And then by the time my junior year came around, I was basically done. I needed half a credit to graduate. So I said, '[The heck with] it, my senior year I'll go to a community college and knock out some college classes so I can even have a better jump on everybody else when I get to college.' "
"School and balancing out football, that was definitely hard," Ramsey said. "I had to take classes at 4 o'clock and I was taking two at home, so that was the most troublesome part."
Georgia has more obvious depth-chart concerns than quarterback that early enrollees can help to address. Matthews and Quincy Mauger will jump into the competition at safety, where starters Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams are leaving. Chris Mayes and John Atkins will enter the competition along the similarly depleted defensive line. And Rankin and Reggie Carter will help replenish the numbers at inside linebacker, which loses veterans Alec Ogletree, Mike Gilliard and Christian Robinson.
And yet Ramsey will join a long line of Georgia quarterbacks -- including Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and current backups Christian LeMay and Faton Bauta -- who entered college in January, and he might even have a chance to compete for playing time if redshirt junior Murray enters the NFL draft.
In hindsight, Murray said early enrollment helped him make a smoother transition into college, but he was not entirely sure that it was worth the sacrifice.
"I think now that more kids are wanting to do that, more high school programs have changed their curriculum around that they allow that to happen, so I think that's why it's a lot easier for that to occur nowadays. But it definitely is helpful," Murray said.
"If I went back today and had to make a decision, I don't know if I would do it again. It definitely helped me a lot, but that second semester of high school your senior year is a lot of fun, I've heard. But it definitely is beneficial."
There is no doubt about that, particularly in the situation where Georgia finds itself today, in desperate need of a depth infusion. With several of the newcomers also in position to contribute in the fall, the learning opportunity that spring practice will provide is invaluable.
"It's critical," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "Part of the problem with freshmen is when they come in in the summer, you can't really work with them as coaches because of NCAA rules. And then the first time you get them is in August and that's the first time they've heard something. Whereas the advantage to spring practice is they get to go through spring ball, they get to hear it from you and then they get to go through the summer and work out on their own and handle it that way. And then they come back in August and they've heard it for a second time, and then really they're not freshmen anymore.
"So I think it's critical that when you can get guys here you can because I think it helps them play early."