In-state success key for Georgia

A finish outside the top 10 in the national recruiting rankings is unusual for the University of Georgia. Over the past 20 years, the Bulldogs have recruited as consistently well as anyone in the country.

Whether it was Ray Goff, Jim Donnan or current coach Mark Richt, UGA has always been one of the elite programs in terms of recruiting.

But something was missing this past season, though. Sure, it was still a good class for Georgia, and the Dawgs finished 12th in the ESPN recruiting rankings. They didn't finish as strongly as usual, however, losing five-star receiver Da'Rick Rogers (Calhoun, Ga./Calhoun) to Tennessee and four-star cornerback Nickell Robey (Frostproof, Fla./Frostproof) to USC as well as missing out on some other top prospects.

Should Georgia fans be concerned? Nah, chalk it up to "just one of those years." Even for elite schools such as Georgia, things just didn't fall their way on some recruits. It happens to everyone at some point.

As we turn the page to the next Georgia class, one would assume all is right in Athens. Richt made some changes to his defensive coaching staff, and with change comes both the good and the bad.

Georgia needed an overhaul on defense. The unit had underachieved over the past few seasons and new blood is sometimes needed on a staff that has been together as long as Richt's, especially when it comes to recruiting.

But with as many staff changes as Richt made, there is a price to pay when it comes to recruiting. Teams are recruiting so far ahead; schools in the ultracompetitive SEC are recruiting two years out on many prospects. When you make coaching changes, those recruiting relationships have to start fresh or be rebuilt.

Coaching changes also come with new schemes, which could mean different recruiting targets. This happens to be the case at Georgia as the Dawgs are switching to a 3-4 scheme on defense.

In theory, one would expect Richt and Georgia to be a little behind, but that's simply not the case. In fact, you have to love what the staff has done in recruiting in such a short period of time.

It helps that this is a good year for prospects in the Peach State. That's saying a lot, by the way, considering Georgia has solidified itself as the No. 4 state in terms of producing Division I players behind only Texas, Florida and California.

Even though UGA is the big dog in the Peach State, things never come easy. Every team is always looking for an edge. Florida created its Friday Night Lights and Auburn has Big Cat Weekend.

Early in the May evaluation period, the Georgia staff came up with their 2011 recruiting pitch: the "Georgia Dream Team." Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and offensive line coach Stacey Searels came up with this slogan and philosophy to pitch to recruits.

Dream Team became the Georgia focus for the 2011 class, and it came together when the coaches hit the road. The Bulldogs took a page out of the Auburn recruiting playbook and sent seven coaches out together, hitting every one of their in-state targets before the NCAA changed the rules to allow only two coaches on the road together at a time.

"It made me feel special to be a part of the University of Georgia Dream Team," said safety Corey Moore, a Georgia commit from Griffin, Ga. "This is the first time something like this happened to me, and I want to be a part of something special. I want to win the SEC. I want to win a national championship. Heck, I want to win the Heisman Trophy if I can."

To add to the Dream Team focus, Richt and his Georgia staff turned to technology. Cell phones, computers, e-mail, websites, webcasts and whatever else schools come up with are a huge part of the recruiting process. The latest and greatest tech gadget, the Apple iPad, was used by the Georgia coaches to make their presentations to Dream Team recruits.

"That was big. That was real big," said David Andrews, a Georgia commit from Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga. "What kid doesn't like to see their name on the iPad and then attached to the Georgia Dream Team? That was big and so cool. All kids love technology and that was a way for the Georgia coaches to connect to us."

Who the Bulldogs have
So how has Georgia's recruiting pitch worked so far? It's safe to say it's been a huge hit. The Dawgs currently rank eighth in the ESPN team rankings and have a chance at a top five class when it's all said and done.

Headlining Richt's class to date is nation's No. 4 quarterback prospect, four-star Christian LeMay (Mint Hill, N.C./Butler), an ESPNU 150 member and an Under-Armour All-American who has the physical tools to be an outstanding signal caller in Athens.

LeMay completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,296 yards, 44 touchdowns and only two interceptions last season as a junior. But will he end up at UGA?

He will have to serve a 30-day suspension for an unspecified rule infraction that was not alcohol- or drug-related. There's some talk that if he doesn't win his appeal of the suspension, LeMay could transfer to another high school.

The Georgia football staff will still take him, but will the Georgia admissions committee accept him? They didn't accept defensive back Michael Grant a few years ago.

The Bulldogs signed another talented quarterback in three-star Nick Marshall (Rochelle, Ga./Wilcox County), a versatile athlete who will likely end up playing safety initially. Marshall could switch back to the offensive side of the ball and play wide receiver.

Georgia has landed two ESPNU 150 wide receivers in Justin Scott-Wesley (Camilla, Ga./Mitchell-Baker) and Chris Conley (Dallas, Ga./North Paulding). Scott-Wesley is big, fast and quick and still learning how to play the position. He was the state champ in the 200 meters and the runner-up in the 100 meters. Conley has good size (6-foot-3, 191 pounds) and makes plays after the catch in the open field. Last season he caught 81 passes.

The offensive line was a pressing need for Georgia, especially at tackle, and the Dawgs have two monster tackle prospects in Watts Dantzler (Dalton, Ga./Dalton) and Zach DeBell (Tarpon Springs, Fla./Tarpon Springs).

Danztler, a four-star prospect who is 6-7 and 314 pounds, is a mauler who is terrific as a run blocker. Dantzler is a Georgia legacy, as his father played in Athens. Meanwhile, DeBell has been one of the hottest recruits in the Sunshine State this spring and summer. A converted defensive end, he is just beginning to learn the position and to fill out his 6-6, 270-pound frame. He has long arms, great feet and a bright future.

Georgia has also received commitments from two centers and a long snapper. Andrews is a four-star recruit and the nation's No. 6-rated center. He's athletic and can get to the second level quickly. Hunter Long (Memphis, Tenn./Briarcrest Christian) will join his brother, Austin, at UGA. Nathan Theus (Jacksonville, Fla./The Bolles School) is a long snapper who committed to Georgia last week.

As for the defense, one would think the change in schemes would have the Bulldogs with more commitments on that side of the ball at this point.

Four-star Sterling Bailey (Gainesville, Ga./East Hall) is an elite defensive end prospect and a member of the ESPNU 150. Bailey has great size (6-5, 239) and the frame to add a whole lot more. He is quick, is tough against the run and plays in the opposition's backfield.

One linebacker has committed to the Dawgs. Amarlo Herrera (College Park, Ga./North Clayton) is a physical outside guy and a big hitter who will make his presence felt immediately on the Georgia defense.

Georgia has secondary help on the way with Moore, four-star cornerback Devin Bowman (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) and three-star safety Chris Sanders (Tucker, Ga./Tucker).

Bowman can help out the Bulldogs on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams. He has good size, great speed and quickness and the ability to make plays. Moore is a safety who can play in the box or the deep middle, supporting the run or playing the pass. Sanders is likely a free safety who plays with range.

Four-star athlete Zachary Witchett (Washington, Ga./Wilkes) checks in at 6-foot, 182 pounds and will probably first get a shot at receiver. Witchett could play cornerback, but he may be too good with the ball in his hands to not play on offense.

That's 15 commitments for Georgia and it's still July. Richt and his staff hope to close with 24 to 26 recruits on national signing day.

Who the Bulldogs still want
There are some huge names still on Georgia's wish list, such as five-star running backs Isaiah Crowell (Columbus, Ga./Carver) and James Wilder (Tampa, Fla/Plant). Alabama and Georgia are in a heated border war for Crowell, the nation's top running back, and right now it looks like the Dawgs could be the team to beat.

The Dawgs have made a late rally with Wilder and find themselves in the sweepstakes for his services alongside Florida, FSU, Miami, Georgia Tech, Alabama and others.

Georgia would love to claim Jay Rome (Valdosta, Ga./Valdosta), the nation's top rated tight end, but it is in a battle with Alabama and Clemson. The word is that the Dawgs and Tide are co-leaders.

The Bulldogs want to land one more tackle prospect in Brandon Shell (Charleston, S.C./Goose Creek), but they are in a heated battle with neighboring South Carolina and others. At this point, he's the only other tackle they would bring in with this class.

On the other side of the ball, Gabe Wright (Columbus, Ga./Carver), Ray Drew (Thomasville, Ga./Thomas County Central) and Xzavier Dickson (Griffin, Ga./Griffin) are three defensive linemen to keep an eye on. Wright favors Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, and it will be a battle to the bitter end. Dickson wants to go to Georgia, but his father prefers Alabama.

Meanwhile, Drew seems to be playing things close to vest. Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, FSU and Clemson are five teams to watch with Drew. Don't sleep on Chris Mayes (Griffin, Ga./Spalding), a defensive tackle who could very well end up in Athens.

One of Georgia's most recent scholarship offers was to Ramik Wilson (Tampa, Fla./Jefferson). The Dawgs have done well in Tampa, so why not with Wilson? The Bulldogs are fighting Florida and Alabama for Malcolm Mitchell (Valdosta, Ga./Valdosta) and are the team to beat for athlete Damian Swann (Atlanta/Grady).

The bottom line
There's no question Georgia is off to a big-time start in recruiting. The Bulldogs are working their plan hard and things seem to be falling into place. The staff has made few scholarship offers since early June and seems confident in its ability to close on its current targets.

Things won't come easy, though, when fighting off the likes of Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, Clemson, FSU and others. How the Bulldogs play this fall will dictate certain outcomes as well. A good year on the field will go a long way.

Regardless, this recruiting season has proved Richt is open to new ideas. He has successfully implemented those ideas, as simple as they are, into his recruiting pitch.

"I know some players that will commit but are holding out," Moore said. "Georgia's plan is working, and it's going to be a special class and a special time in Athens for the next four or five years."

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