ATHENS -- There was a lot going on elsewhere, especially in south Georgia, Wednesday afternoon when Mark Richt made his pronouncement about the suspense of this day.
“I quite frankly would like to have no buzz on signing date,” he said. “I’d like it to be the boringest day it is.”
It turned out to be quite the opposite for Richt and the Georgia football program. In fact the drama continued into the night.
The Bulldogs pulled in a number of very good players Wednesday, filling needs and setting up their defense well for the future. But National Signing Day ended up being centered around the saga of one player, a standout from Valdosta.
Earlier Wednesday, Richt was on national cable television raving about outside linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons, who at 9:15 a.m. had committed to the Bulldogs. But Richt did so prematurely. As the day went on, national letters-of-intent rolled in over the fax machine at the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, but none of them were from Harvey-Clemons.
By the time Richt spoke to the press at 1 p.m., he had to dodge even mentioning Harvey-Clemons’ name, because it’s against NCAA rules to comment on unsigned players. Richt’s earlier comments on Harvey-Clemons could end up in a secondary violation, unless it ends up being considered inadvertent because he thought the LOI had arrived.
“Bottom line is we’re just thrilled with the announcement that he made. That’s it,” Richt said carefully at his news conference.
It was later reported by several outlets, including ESPN, that Harvey-Clemons still wanted to sign with Georgia but his family preferred Florida or Florida State.
By the late afternoon, Georgia gave up on making it official Wednesday, sending out a release of 18 signees, without Harvey-Clemons on there.
With or without him, the Bulldogs can boast of positives with their class. Needs were filled on both sides of the ball and special teams:
The first player to send in his letter-of-intent, around 7:01 a.m. on Wednesday, was John Theus. The Jacksonville, Fla., native, could start at left tackle this season.
“You’ve got guys like A.J. Green you’ve had in the past, the Matthew Staffords and all that, guys at their position who were really highly thought of for a certain reason. Well John is in that category for me,” Richt said. “So his opportunity is gonna be the same as those other guys.”
Tailback Keith Marshall was already enrolled, and Todd Gurley, his good friend and fellow North Carolina native, also signed Wednesday. They join a crowded Georgia backfield, but tailback was considered a need after the off-field and injury troubles of SEC freshman of the year Isaiah Crowell.
Running backs coach Bryan McClendon said Crowell has been welcoming the competition.
“He’s been great, been super,” McClendon said. “Right now he’s had a very, very, very good offseason. Which is always good. It’s still really early. But I think everyone’s sort of embracing the fact that they’re going to come in here and compete. The best guys are gonna play, and the best guy is gonna start.”
Georgia also has Richard Samuel and Ken Malcome back. But Richt pointed to earlier in his tenure, when Georgia had the likes of Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin, Danny Ware and Knowshon Moreno. They all ended up playing in the NFL.
“We were loaded up pretty good. It didn’t seem to hurt any of those guys in their careers,” Richt said.
Georgia returns nine of 11 starters on a defense that ranked in the top five nationally. But the Bulldogs loaded up anyway, with an eye towards versatility and stocking for 2013 and beyond.
The team only signed one defensive back but loaded up on front seven players. So even without Harvey-Clemons, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham felt good about his group.
Grantham said several times the 2012 defensive group “complements” last year’s group.
“When you look at the quality of players defensively we’re able to bring in right now it’s exciting,” Grantham said. “To win the SEC, you’ve gotta be pretty dominant in your front seven, you’ve gotta be stout, and I think we addressed those needs with the linemen. And with the linebackers we signed, the thing of it is they’re all very versatile.”
Georgia signed a place-kicker (Marshall Morgan from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) and a punter (Collin Barber from Cartersville). The two are set to replace the graduated Blair Walsh and Drew Butler.
“The tandem of those guys over their career was phenomenal,” Richt said. “So we’ve got to get the best in the country. We’ve got to get the very best. And so we feel like we did that.”