Some folks live to follow recruiting. Paul Johnson, who makes his living in a business tied to recruiting, isn’t among them. Here’s the Georgia Tech coach on the sport-within-a-sport:
“It’s kind of been blown out of proportion a little. Certainly [recruiting] is important, but you’ve got people hanging on every word. I think crowning a guy before he’s played a [collegiate] down is a little premature.”
I know what some of you are saying: Easy for Johnson to claim recruiting isn’t a big deal, but would he feel the same if the Rivals.com rankings were reversed? If Tech’s class were rated the nation’s seventh-best and Georgia’s the 40th-best?
Being Paul Johnson, he would. He’s a pragmatist of the first rank, and a bit of a contrarian. When asked a question, he often begins his response with, “Oh, I don’t know …” or “Not really.” He’s a football lifer who has seen pretty much everything, and one thing he knows is that, in football as in life, things aren’t always what they seem.
Johnson: “We did a study about the ACC, and it showed that more teams teams ranked in the bottom half of the conference in recruiting played in the championship game than those ranked in the top half. And yet you’ve got people ready to cut their wrists [over recruiting].”
Also: “I don’t think anyone really knows how hard a guy is going to work. Some guys have reached their peak; some guys are just scratching the surface. And people talk about ‘impact players’: A very small number of guys are ‘impact players.’ Go back to last year’s [Tech] group, where we had two guys go in the first round. [Receiver Demaryius] Thomas was redshirted as a freshman, and [defensive end] Derrick Morgan didn’t have a great freshman year. But they became playmakers.”
The issue of impact, or the lack thereof, is a Tech hot button. The Jackets plummeted from a 2009 ACC title to an Independence Bowl loss because of an apparent absence of difference-makers. Would Johnson concede that, with the famous 2007 recruiting class assembled by predecessor Chan Gailey all but gone, his program lacks top-end talent? He would not.
“As good a football player as [B-back] Johnny Dwyer was — and he was a great player, the ACC player of the year [in 2008] — he really didn’t play much as a freshman after his first four games. I just think as those kids worked, they got better.”
Gailey’s 2007 class was ranked 19th-best by Rivals, marking the only time Tech has cracked the Top 40 in the past decade. With this class at No. 40, it would seem the Jackets have done well by their standards but not quite as well as they’d have liked. Johnson’s take: “I think it’s going well, but ask me again in three years … It’s like a coach once told me: ‘They all came highly recommended.’ But you don’t know how hard they’re going to work.”
Will work alone be able to lift Tech back above .500? Or has a post-Gailey talent gap developed that Johnson — whose first three recruiting classes were rated 49th, 49th and 43rd by Rivals — has been unable to close?
Johnson: “We’ve got some good young players. We’ve redshirted some offensive linemen. [A-back] Orwin Smith made an impact; he had some big runs. And [outside linebacker] Jeremiah Attaochu had a better freshman year than Derrick Morgan. I don’t know if he’ll be as good as Derrick, but it’s possible he could be. ”
If it wasn’t an diminution of talent that led to 6-7 after 11-3, what was it? “We didn’t turn the ball over as much the year before, and we didn’t lose our quarterback [Joshua Nesbitt] … But you have to make your breaks. We did the year before, like Josh snatching the ball back at Florida State. Anytime something happened last year, it went the other way.”
That said, a coach is paid his million(s) to win games, not say, “Gee whiz.” Paul Johnson is nothing if not a results-oriented guy. But you’ll pardon him if he doesn’t see Signing Day, in this or any year, as a true result.
“You want to judge recruiting?” Johnson said. “How many games did you win? That’s the best bottom line.”
By Mark Bradley