ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia's out-of-state recruiting efforts produced only mixed results - and no Ernie Sims - but the dominant in-state showing gave Coach Mark Richt a signing class widely regarded among the top 10 nationally.
Georgia's 24 signees Wednesday included 21 in-state players. Most of the state's top players, including two Parade magazine All-Americans, signed with the Bulldogs. There was disappointment from the crowd of approximately 250 Georgia fans at the Butts-Mehre facility when word spread Wednesday morning that Sims, a Tallahassee, Fla., standout, signed with Florida State over Georgia, Auburn, Miami and Florida.
Noting that Sims' parents attended Florida State and his father played for Coach Bobby Bowden, Richt said "it would have been pretty shocking'' if the running back/linebacker had picked Georgia.
Still, with such players as running back Kregg Lumpkin, cornerback Paul Oliver, receiver Sean Bailey and offensive lineman Zeb McKinzey staying in their home state to sign with Georgia, Richt had a successful year. Lumpkin and Oliver were Parade All-Americans and Bailey was a USA Today All-USA first-team pick.
TheInsiders.com ranked Georgia's class ninth in the country.
Georgia signed seven of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Super 11 players from the state.
"It was the first time that every kid that we hotly pursued from day one, that we were committed to getting, we were able to get,'' said Georgia recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner. "That's pretty impressive.''
With the help of momentum generated by the 2002 Southeastern Conference championship, Georgia had its pick of the state's top talent. "I'm thrilled,'' Richt said. "When I took the job, one of the things a coach has to look at is does he have an in-state recruiting base, because it's murder out of state. I mean, it's tough.''
Georgia signed two players who had not given verbal commitments - linebacker Dana Graydon of Albany and offensive lineman James Lee of Belle Glade, Fla. Each helped to address top needs.
Also notable was the decision of Richard Cook, a defensive lineman from Washington-Wilkes, to sign with Georgia. Cook had wavered on his commitment after a late recruiting effort by Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
Graydon, one of five linebackers in the class, chose Georgia over Florida State. Lee, who also considered Florida and Ohio State, is one of seven offensive linemen to sign with the Bulldogs.
Georgia must replace its five starting offensive linemen and its three starting linebackers from the 13-1 2002 team. At each area, incoming freshmen will be needed for depth.
Richt said he did not think any signee was a serious risk academically. The 2003 Georgia roster will include only 12 scholarship seniors, so Richt said there was no urgency to reach the NCAA limit of 25 signees. With a smaller than normal recruiting class in 2004, Richt said it made sense to save a spot on the overall cap of 85 scholarships for next year.
Another reason Richt told his staff to hold at 24 was the optimism about the players they already had signed.
"Really our needs were met a long time ago, but there were a few more cherries, I guess, that could have been put on top that would have been great,'' Richt said.
While offensive linemen and linebackers were recruited for immediate depth, other members of the class may have an even better opportunity to start next season.
Thanks to the departure of Musa Smith to the NFL draft, Richt said Lumpkin "is going to have a wonderful opportunity'' to play or even start.Lumpkin will be the first Georgia tailback to play for Richt who boasts both the size (6-1, 200) and speed that Richt has wanted.
"We said as a staff without question (Lumpkin) was the very best tailback in the state and anybody we had seen out of state,'' Richt said.
"We looked nationwide on tape and we felt he was as good as anybody we saw on film. Now how well will he do, only time will tell, but he's got a tremendous opportunity to make an impact on our team as a freshman. We'll find out if he can do it.'' Bailey, the son of former Atlanta Falcons receiver Stacey Bailey, could help make up for the loss of 2002 senior Terrence Edwards.
Kicker Andy Bailey, one of the three out-of-state signees, could replace 2002 senior Brett Kirouac on kickoffs and will compete to replace punter Jonathan Kilgo, also a 2002 senior.