published Sunday, July 10th, 2011

The SEC in 1-2-3: Underrated recruiting classes

Having trouble waiting until the start of college football season?

In a series on Sundays, the Times Free Press is providing top-three lists on various Southeastern Conference topics. Today’s list contains the most underrated signing classes since Y2K.

1. Georgia’s 2000 class

SuperPrep did not include the Bulldogs among its top 25 recruiting classes nationally and had Georgia Tech 18th. The Yellow Jackets swept the state’s three prized linebackers — Hobie Holiday, Daryl Smith and Keyaron Fox — which led to Bulldogs fans voicing their displeasure to coach Jim Donnan on signing day.

Yet out of that supposedly subpar class came the nucleus of Mark Richt’s 2002 SEC champions — quarterback David Greene, running back Musa Smith, receiver Reggie Brown, defensive end Will Thompson, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and safety Sean Jones.

“Sometimes you have blue-chip guys who come in and think they’re something special and that they’ve already proven something,” Greene said last week. “We were just a bunch of Average Joes hoping to play football. A lot of times, those end up being your better teams because they’re humble enough to take coaching and they’re hungry enough to get better.

“We definitely didn’t come in thinking we were anything special, and when you’re playing a team game, that’s really what you want.”

Greene redshirted before going on to win 42 games as a starting quarterback, which set an NCAA record at that time. Smith rushed for 1,324 yards for the ’02 league champs, Thompson had two sacks and a forced fumble against Florida State in that season’s Sugar Bowl and Brown had 144 career catches before becoming a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005.

Georgia’s 2000 class had five players who were drafted within the first three rounds.

“One thing Jim Donnan could do was recruit,” Greene said. “When you look at the level of talent that was there during his day, it was unbelievable. I ran the scout-team offense my first year, and the starting 11 on defense played pro ball, and a lot of them were early-round draft picks.

“I wasn’t highly recruited when I came out, but Coach Donnan was going around telling everybody at Bulldog events that I was going to be his guy. He talked me up when other college coaches didn’t, that’s for sure. He was confident about it, too.”

The Bulldogs have assembled top-20 classes every year since under Richt, including the “Dream Team” several months ago that was ranked fifth by Rivals.com.

“I do think that this class is excited about coming to Georgia, and I think they’re excited about doing great things at Georgia,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Those guys in 2000 were core guys for several years down the road, and hopefully we’ve got enough guys in this class who are core guys, but you don’t ever know.”

2. Arkansas’ 2008 class

This crop is a very close second, because it’s the chief reason the explosive Razorbacks got to the Sugar Bowl last year and could enter this season with a top-10 ranking.

Rivals.com rated the ’08 Arkansas class ninth in the SEC and 36th nationally, but out of it have come receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright. All three are all on the 2011 Biletnikoff watch list after combining for 138 catches for 2,260 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and that’s with Childs missing the second half of the season.

Most of those yards came from the arm of Ryan Mallett, who transferred to Fayetteville from Michigan in ’08 and sat out that season, but some were from Tyler Wilson, an ’08 signee who has taken the reins this year.

There also are defensive standouts from the ’08 class who could be up for league honors in several months, such as cornerback Jerico Nelson (87 tackles last season), end Tenarius Wright (56 tackles and six sacks) and safety Tramain Thomas (a team-leading four interceptions).

Incidentally, RIvals.com ranked Tennessee’s ’08 class one spot ahead of Arkansas. Headlining what would be Phillip Fulmer’s final collection were E.J. Abrams-Ward (dismissed in January 2009 after redshirting), Marlon Walls (missed last season with Achilles’ injury) and the late Aaron Douglas.

3. Alabama’s 2006 class

Some perspective is needed here.

Mike Shula’s final class was ranked 11th nationally by Rivals.com, which is hardly disappointing, but the program has been a recruiting wildebeest ever since under Nick Saban and has finished with the No. 1 class three times in the past four years. Bama’s ’06 bunch contained five-star offensive lineman Andre Smith and four-star defensive backs Marquis Johnson and Justin Woodall, but it also had three-star prospects such as quarterback Greg McElroy, tight end Preston Dial and cornerback and return specialist Javier Arenas.

McElroy was rated behind other pro-style quarterbacks such as Mitch Mustain (Arkansas and Southern Cal), Neil Caudle (Auburn) and Chris Smelley (South Carolina) yet led Alabama to the 2009 BCS title and won his first 19 starts. Dial had 25 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns last season, but no player in recent SEC memory achieved so much for being so unheralded as Arenas.

After picking Alabama over the likes of Florida International and Florida Atlantic, Arenas not only went on to be a quality cornerback but set SEC career records for punt-return yards and punt-return touchdowns. He was too good from the start to redshirt and was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 2010 draft.

— Compiled by David Paschall

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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