If recruiting isn’t everything, neither is it nothing. As good as Paul Johnson is with middling talent, imagine how he’d do with better players. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine. We saw Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl only 13 months ago.)
At issue isn’t what this coach can do with what he has; at issue is what he has, and hasn’t, been able to get. The five best players on that Orange Bowl roster were recruited by Johnson’s predecessor. On Wednesday the Jackets announced their best recruiting class, if we go by the rankings, since Chan Gailey’s banner haul of 2007, but it wasn’t as good as it could/should have been.
Forget competing with Georgia and its Dream Team. SEC programs recruit on an entirely different level. What’s troubling about this Tech class is that it has been ranked in the lower half of the ACC, and the Jackets are based in the biggest city in a Southern state famous for its football. What’s troubling is that Georgia Tech could sign only four of the top 50 players in Georgia.
Yes, Tech is a bit different. Johnson recruits for his offense, which means he prizes running quarterbacks and smallish backs and linemen, and running quarterbacks and smallish backs and linemen aren’t afforded four- and five-star treatment. There’s nothing wrong with the players the Jackets signed — they loaded up on linebackers and might have landed the new Joshua Nesbitt in Vad Lee of Durham, N.C. — but in a year considered bountiful even by this state’s exalted standards, should Georgia Tech be ranked behind Boston College?
“I feel we did well,” Johnson told a gathering of Tech fans at the Edge Center on Wednesday. Then this: “We feel like everyone we signed has a chance to have a good career. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have signed them.”
Outside the conference room, Johnson was asked about the five publicized “de-commitments” Tech sustained over the final three weeks. “There’s always a story behind every story,” he said. “It always assumed that somebody [meaning the player] changed his mind, and sometimes that’s not true. Sometimes it’s grades; sometimes it’s admissions. You can paint that however you want.”
This Signing Day was widely viewed as a time for Tech, which seemed to run low on top-shelf talent in its slide to 6-7, to restock. Did it get what it needed? “I think so,” Johnson said. Then: “You never get everybody you want.”
The promise inherent in Johnson at Tech — a promised realized in the 11-3 season of 2009 — was that the mastermind would finally, after his splendid work at Georgia Southern and Navy, have the chance to deploy talent of the first rank. But Johnson’s fourth recruiting class as coach of the Jackets includes only one player (Jabari Hunt-Days of Powder Springs) of the 23 Georgians assigned four or five stars by Rivals.com.
Johnson was the head coach at Georgia Southern, as was co-offensive line coach Mike Sewak; quarterbacks/B-backs coach Brian Bohannon is a Griffin native who worked at Georgia Southern; recruiting coordinator Andy McCollum grew up in Marietta. This isn’t a staff that lacks a feel for the terrain. And yet … more than half of these 22 signees hail from out of state.
Is it possible Tech football is held in higher esteem beyond the state borders than within them? If so, that has to change. This is a proud program that needs apologize to no one. Tech shouldn’t have to avoid its geography; it should embrace it. And it won’t make Johnson any less a coach to evince a bit more enthusiasm toward recruiting. Heck, it might make him an even better one.
By Mark Bradley