- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt strengthened his reputation as a recruiting closer last year when many of Georgia's top recruits announced their decisions to become Bulldogs within the final two weeks before national signing day.
If Richt and his staff pull off a similar Houdini routine this year, Georgia's class will finish higher in the ESPN recruiting rankings than last year's heralded "Dream Team," which earned the No. 6 spot.
This year's class is already ranked fifth and could move up if Georgia reels in targets like the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker, Josh Harvey-Clemons (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes), offensive lineman Avery Young (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Palm Beach Gardens), defensive end Josh Dawson (Tucker, Ga./Tucker) or juco receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (Rock Hill, S.C./Hutchinson, Kan., CC), among others.
Several coaches on Georgia's staff have reputations as strong recruiters, but many prospects' decisions ultimately come down to their level of comfort with a program's leader.
Many Bulldogs signees invariably list Richt's presence as one of the key factors in their decision.
"I think just his overall demeanor and his showing that he cares about you as a person and as a young man first, and then as a football player, I think that's a fresher approach and a different approach from what they get as far as hard selling you on the program, the football, the this and that," said former Bulldog Nick Jones, who was an All-SEC center for Richt in 2006. Jones spent the last two seasons as a UGA graduate assistant before recently landing his first assistant coaching job at Coastal Carolina.
"I think he sells you on, 'Hey, I'm going to care about you as one of my own,' as opposed to, 'Hey, you're going to be a great football player here, you're going to start,' and this and that. His whole demeanor and his genuineness is what makes him a quote-unquote good closer."
With Richt, there are a variety of components to the demeanor that compels many recruits to become Bulldogs.
Man of faith
Many players and families who value their Christian beliefs seem to gravitate toward Richt because of his outspoken faith.
"I just knew they felt safer with me being with Coach Richt because he's a Christian man," said outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (Hamilton, Ga./Harris County) of how his parents felt about his decision to sign with Georgia over Alabama and Florida. "That's one thing my mom really loves about him. They just feel really comfortable with him and there's no awkwardness about it at all."
Perhaps Richt's most valuable recruiting trait is his ability to blend in with regular folks.
He famously took five-star recruit Ray Drew fishing last year before Drew pledged to sign with Georgia. He was in the headlines last week for tagging along with Harvey-Clemons -- ESPN's top-ranked recruit in Georgia -- on a visit to jail as Harvey-Clemons, working as an agent for his family's bail-bonding business, bailed out a customer. And he has delivered a sound beating to many a recruit on the ping-pong table at his house.
"He came over and it was like he was part of the family," former Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran recalled of Richt's in-home visit when he was a recruit. "My family's from Liberia and he ate Liberian food with us. It was crazy to have him in our home, especially after watching him for so long. It was kind of surreal."
All about momentum
Richt's personality, combined with that of his coaching staff and the winning tradition at Georgia, have made for a convincing sales tool. The Bulldogs have regularly landed some of the nation's highest-rated recruiting classes throughout his UGA tenure.
Typically, signing day itself could be a mostly ho-hum affair for the Bulldogs, as many of their top targets committed weeks and months in advance.
The last two weeks before last year's signing day -- plus a couple days afterward -- created more excitement for Georgia than any in recent memory.
Valdosta (Ga.) High School teammates Jay Rome and Malcolm Mitchell got the ball rolling two weeks before signing day, when both announced they would sign with Georgia. Drew jumped on board a week later. Isaiah Crowell, rated the top 2011 running back by ESPNU, famously hoisted an English Bulldog puppy in the air as he announced live on TV that he would sign with Georgia. And nose guard John Jenkins put the finishing touches on an excellent class three days after signing day.
"There was more drama than there has been, last year, than a lot of years," Richt said. "There was kind of, not just that day itself, but guys were making decisions along the way and we won most of those battles and we were picking up momentum.
"This guy was going to commit this day and then a couple days later there's another and another, and then signing day. It just seemed like there was a progression. You couldn't have planned it out better than it happened."
Georgia hopes to finish with similar excitement this year after starting slowly on the recruiting trail. Other than probation-affected USC, no school in ESPN's rankings of the top 25 recruiting classes has fewer than Georgia's 16 reported verbal commitments.
The Bulldogs can add quality and depth to an already strong class by landing some of the remaining big fish in the final days of recruiting.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.