ATHENS, Ga. - The Georgia Bulldogs had a lot of prospects to show off Wednesday.
Just not some of the names the fans wanted to see.
Coming off a season in which it came up 5 yards short of playing for a national title, Georgia unveiled the largest signing class of the Mark Richt era, a staggering 32 prospects bolstered by 13 players who've already enrolled in Athens after graduating early from high school and junior college.
It figured to be one of the top-ranked groups in the country, but there was plenty of grumbling among the red and black faithful about the ones who got away, the so-called five-star recruits who get the fan base all pumped up.
The prospect generally considered the best in the nation, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Grayson High School in suburban Atlanta, followed his older brother to Mississippi instead of signing with the school that is less than an hour's drive away. The Rebels, who are coming off a 7-6 season, also landed another player near the top of Georgia's wish list, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil from Lake City, Fla. Finally, there was top-rated linebacker Reuben Foster, who picked defending national champion Alabama over Auburn and the Bulldogs.
Richt, not surprisingly, said he was happy with the players he landed.
"I really don't have any disappointments right now," said the coach, who attended a news conference just four days after having hip-replacement surgery. "As far as I'm concerned, we got the number one class in America. We took care of business in the areas we needed. We got guys who are very, very talented and are excited to be here. Our job is to develop them into a great football team. That's what matters the most."
With plenty of needs to fill, especially on the defensive side, the Bulldogs focused heavily on building their numbers at a variety of positions. They signed eight defensive backs, six linebackers and a trio of defensive tackles who all clear the scales at more than 300 pounds. The newcomers will help fill the voids left by the departure of stars such as Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins.
"Different people have opinions on where people rank and that kind of thing," Richt said. "We know as coaches that we got a great class that we're proud of and very excited about. Somebody invented these rankings, decided to rank the players and make a big deal about it. The reality is what happens when we hook it up and play Clemson (in the season opener). That's what our fans care about the most."
The lead-up to signing day was marred by off-the-field issues.
Longtime recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner left to take a coaching job at Auburn, his alma mater. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will reportedly have an interview with the New Orleans Saints this week, the latest in a series of potential NFL jobs he's been linked to over the last two years. Finally, there was Richt's ailing hip, which required surgery last Saturday. He had intended to wait until after signing day, but bumped up the operation so he could attend a Southeastern Conference coaches meeting next week.
"I knew it was a dead period. I couldn't physically go anywhere anyway," Richt said. "We're allowed to make X-amount of calls. I really could do the same things from my home on the telephone that I could sitting in my office. I felt it was the best thing to do to go ahead and have the surgery."
Grantham wouldn't address his interest in the Saints job. He would only say he's happy at Georgia and expects to be coaching the Bulldogs defense next season.
"I'm not going to respond to all the rumors and innuendos because it's very difficult to do that all the time," he said. "So I'll just leave it as it is."
Georgia has some key weapons on offense coming back next season, including quarterback Aaron Murray and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Not surprisingly, they were light on recruiting those positions, signing one quarterback (early enrollee Brice Ramsey from Kingsland, Ga.) and a pair of running backs. The main focus on that side was receiver (four signees, plus two other players listed as athletes) and four linemen to bulk up the guys in the trenches.
Among the highest-rated players landed by the Bulldogs: defensive back Tray Matthews of Newnan, Ga.; linebacker Tim Kimbrough of Indianapolis; defensive end Leonard Floyd of Eastman, Ga.; and offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow of Marietta, Ga.
Everyone in the class is eager to show they're just as good - or better - than the ones who didn't come to Athens.
"This is the class we got. This is the class we want," said offensive lineman Aulden Bynum, another early enrollee out of Valdosta, Ga. "If you don't want to be here, you don't need to be here."
J.J. Green of Kingsland, Ga., said there's no reason this group of Bulldogs can't keep up the success of the ones who came before. Georgia has won two straight SEC East crowns and just missed playing for the BCS championship last month, losing to eventual national champ Alabama 32-28 in a thrilling conference title game.
"Just because you're a three-star guy, that doesn't mean you can't ball out and beat a five-star guy out," said Green, who can play receiver and other positions. "We're going to be out there playing with a chip on our shoulder."
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