Mitchell, Rome helped spark UGA surge

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s football program seemed to be on the ropes with two weeks remaining until signing day 2011. Three seasons of declining results, capped by the program’s first losing record under Mark Richt in 2010, left the Bulldogs in an uncertain position.

But when Malcolm Mitchell and Jay Rome elected to join the Bulldogs’ “Dream Team” recruiting class on Jan. 20, 2011, an impressive finishing push for Richt’s coaching staff leading up to signing day was launched. That was a big step toward the on-field resurgence that allowed the Bulldogs to win back-to-back SEC East titles over the last two years.

Another strong signing class followed the “Dream Team” in 2012 and played a role in the Bulldogs’ division championship. And as Richt’s staff attempts to reel in a final batch of blue-chip prospects before national signing day on Wednesday, we can review the successes of the past two seasons and point to that mid-January day -- 13 days before signing day 2011 -- that Valdosta (Ga.) teammates Mitchell and Rome publicly committed to the Bulldogs as the jumping-off point for Richt’s staff to restock their roster with a flood of talent.

With a month left before signing day 2011, Georgia had just one ESPN 150 honoree -- quarterback Christian LeMay -- on its commitment list. Richt’s staff was in the running for a number of big fish, but January was clearly going to be a make-or-break month.

Cornerback Damian Swann -- the No. 76 overall prospect and No. 9 athlete -- got the ball rolling by publicly committing to the Bulldogs on Jan. 8, 25 days before signing day. Linebacker Ramik Wilson and safety Quintavious Harrow would follow with verbal pledges over the next 11 days.

But the bombshell came on Jan. 20 when Mitchell -- ESPN’s No. 45 overall prospect and No. 7 wide receiver -- and Rome -- the top tight end prospect on ESPN’s board and No. 18 overall prospect -- announced at separate press conferences that they would become Bulldogs. Recruiting analysts thought Richt’s staff had a good shot at landing Rome, but virtually nobody expected Mitchell to pick Georgia over Alabama.

But he did select Georgia and has arguably been the most impactful player among the Bulldogs’ 2011 signees due to his dynamic playmaking ability -- never more obvious than during his game-clinching 45-yard touchdown catch against Florida last season.

The Bulldogs would land their only two five-star signees, No. 4 overall prospect and top running back Isaiah Crowell and Ray Drew -- the No. 2 defensive end and No. 13 overall prospect -- in the two weeks following Mitchell and Rome’s announcement. Junior college nose guard John Jenkins would come aboard three days after signing day and suddenly Richt’s staff had locked down five ESPN 150 prospects plus a sought-after juco player whom they could immediately plug into the hole at the center of their defensive line.

Because of significant contributions from a number of those players, led by Mitchell and Jenkins, Georgia has posted a 22-6 record over the last two seasons and should enter 2013 with a top-10 ranking after locking down yet another nationally respected recruiting class.

Richt’s staff is once again attempting to show off a finishing kick in recruiting as they pursue nationally ranked prospects such as defensive lineman Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga./Dooly County), offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla./Columbia), defensive end Davin Bellamy (Chamblee, Ga./Chamblee), linebacker Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) and running back Alvin Kamara (Norcross, Ga./Norcross) before signing day.

They appear to face long odds with a couple of those prospects, but as Mitchell’s 2011 commitment proved, “sure things” are rare on the recruiting trail. Landing those surprise prospects down the stretch can make a huge difference, because they certainly helped Georgia become a winner again over the last two seasons.