ATHENS, Ga. – The members of Georgia's 2011 “Dream Team” recruiting class still maintain a close bond, even if circumstances have taken some members of the class to other places.
That bond between players will face an unusual test on Saturday when former Dream Teamer Nick Marshall – now Auburn's starting quarterback after Bulldogs coach Mark Richt dismissed him, Sanford Seay and Chris Sanders following the 2011 season after getting caught stealing from teammates – will stand on the opposite sideline from his former classmates.
“Weird I wouldn't say is the right word for it. It's going to be different going against one of the guys that you did come in with and actually roomed with when we first got here,” said defensive end Ray Drew, who roomed with Marshall, Seay, Jay Rome, Malcolm Mitchell and Sterling Bailey at Georgia's Reed Hall when the class first arrived on campus.
Georgia was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season when the Dream Team signed with the Bulldogs, and the group was never shy in expressing its intention of helping the program get back on track. They had the nation's top tailback and No. 4 overall prospect in Isaiah Crowell, another five-star talent in Drew, the No. 1 tight end in Rome and a large group including Mitchell, John Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera, Chris Conley and Damian Swann who would contribute soon after becoming Bulldogs.
There was a level of self-assurance within the group that was somewhat unusual for a group of freshmen.
“Coming in I do believe the guys did have some confidence about themselves – that this was going to be the class that did some big things,” Drew recalled. “And there's still that possibility. We still can. That swagger you're talking about, I can see that being there. It was. You can't deny it.”
Truth be told, they've already been part of some big things. Crowell was named the SEC's Freshman of the Year in his lone season on campus – he was dismissed in the summer of 2012 after a weapons possession arrest and is now starring at Alabama State – and the Bulldogs won their first SEC East championship since 2005.
They played in a second straight SEC championship game at the end of last season and fell only a few yards short of playing for a BCS title – with multiple Dream Team members playing key roles on a team that would finish fifth nationally.
“I think we've actually got a good resume being here,” said Swann, now in his second season as a starting cornerback. “We beat Auburn twice, we beat Florida three times, we've been to the SEC championship two times since I've been here. We're 1-1 in a bowl game. I think with the resume that my class has put together, I think it's actually one to look at, and I think we're continuing to improve it and make it better.”
That they are. Linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC with 92 tackles, with Herrera's 79 stops ranking fourth. Drew is sixth in the league with six sack. Wideouts Mitchell, Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley have all flashed star potential, although injuries have struck all three players this season. Center David Andrews, also a second-year starter, is one of the leaders of the Bulldogs' offensive line.
And junior college transfer Jenkins is already in the NFL – the New Orleans Saints picked him in the third round of this year's draft – after solidifying the middle of the Bulldogs' defensive line in 2011 and 2012.
“We've done some pretty good things,” said defensive end Bailey, who has started eight times this season in his first significant dose of playing time. “You had some players from the Dream Team come in and make an impact and then you had some players behind some great players who are playing in the NFL right now and got experience and now being in the third year, we're putting all that experience to work.”
The Georgia journey ended early for several members of the class. Marshall, Seay and Sanders were all dismissed together and Crowell followed them out the door a few months later. Safety Quintavious Harrow left shortly after his former Carver-Columbus teammate and close friend Crowell.
In all, seven members of the 26-man signing class are either gone or never enrolled at Georgia at all (linebacker Kent Turene). But the remaining Dream Teamers still maintain a close bond, Drew said.
“There's a tightness between us,” he said. “I think even though we're tight as a team, I think there's just one more stitch or two between us that pulls us close. Whenever you see one person, you're always going to see someone else from the same class right there with them just tagging along.”
The bulk of the class should remain intact for at least one more season, with several more Dream Teamers who redshirted still carrying two seasons of eligibility after 2013. That time, they said, is what will determine whether they meet the high expectations that accompanied their arrival.
“We're still in the process,” Wilson said. “A lot of us are just now starting to play, so it's in the process of something becoming great.
“We all had high expectations of playing early and turning this program around. As soon as we stepped on this campus, we went to the SEC championship from that 6-7 year. So all we had was nothing but success here, 10-win seasons, since I've been here. So we're just trying to keep that going.”