ATLANTA — In a conversation during the recent Rose Bowl week, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith diverted from his usual public role as a destroyer who will sap the mirth right out of your offense, and took on a role as tutor.
When a novice aimed to learn about Georgia high school football, specifically the chronic argument between the Atlanta schools and those from South Georgia, a subject Prof. Smith had just brought up, the novice asked, “So, South Georgia wants to prove that it belongs with big, old Atlanta?”
The answer, from this football monster from Montezuma, Ga., south of Macon, went, “Well, I don’t think South Georgia wants to prove that. I think South Georgia, it’s kind of known that Atlanta wants to prove they’re like South Georgia.”
The rise of Georgia into the College Football Playoff and the national championship game set for Monday night here, against dynastic Alabama, has done more than inject a playoff debutant. It has proved a reminder of the steep and still-growing caliber of this state in mass-producing American footballers.
Of the 131 players on Georgia’s roster, 93 hail from Georgia, ahead of second-place Florida by a fat 80. Of the 115 players listed on Alabama’s roster, 11 hail from Georgia, third behind Alabama (42) and Texas (13). Alabama, with its national sheen, boasts players from 27 states, even Hawaii and Minnesota, with six states sending five or more players to Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs, whose national presence long has been good but has only begun to bud toward great, have players from 18 states, but with only two states in that five-or-more division.
Thereby has second-year Coach Kirby Smart, that Georgia graduate in finance, demonstrated that if you have a group of players predominantly Georgian, and you mix in one of those coveted football maniacs as a coach, you can access college football’s happiest rafters.
A Georgian who played for Clemson, Deshaun Watson, remains until Monday the reigning national champion quarterback, a position he attained by steering fourth-quarter drives of 72, 88 and 68 yards last year against Alabama, the last one just before the curtain fell. Two other Georgian quarterbacks, Trevor Lawrence from Cartersville and Justin Fields from Kennesaw, rank Nos. 1 and 2 among the top 100 all-position prospects for 2018 on Rivals.com. The University of Georgia ranks No. 1 on the early list of schools, already pulling from its own state players with the following national rankings: 1, 2, 7, 9, 13, 15, 18, 34, 73, 83 and 84.
“If you ask me,” Smith said of football in Georgia, “I would say it’s the best in the country.”
“Of course I’m biased, but it’s second to none,” said Tyrique McGhee, the defensive back from Byron, Ga., and the fabulously named Peach County.
“A lot of people sometimes don’t really say it,” said Alabama defensive back Xavier McKinney, from Roswell next to Atlanta, “but I think it’s the best for high school football, to be honest, throughout all the states.”
Those assessments might owe to more than just bias. Check any listing of the top states in producing four- and five-star recruits, and Georgia tends to finish fourth behind the usual California, Texas and Florida. What distinguishes Georgia within that frame is its mere 10 million people, next to Florida’s 21 million, Texas’s 28 million and California’s 39 million.
“I think they, per capita, arguably are the best state,” said Chad Simmons, who analyzes Georgia recruiting for Rivals. He thinks that sense has blossomed through the past decade, from a position of being considered in the top five to one of nearing the top three or, in some views, even top two. The rise of the Bulldogs has taught further about demographics, and the American shift toward warmer weather (present Atlanta days excluded), as Georgia went from the 13th-most populous state in 1950 (with 3.4 million people) to eighth nowadays.
Mark Richt, who coached Georgia from 2001 to ’15, routinely mined the state for highly ranked classes, frequenting the National Signing Day top 10, finishing seventh per Rivals in 2014 and sixth in 2015. Smart finished ninth after his transition in 2016 and third in 2017 before sitting in first in 2018 for now.
To play high school football in Georgia, then, is to be proud of doing so while also keenly aware of operating amid all the California-Texas-Florida hype.
“I always hear about those states,” said McKinney, a freshman. “I feel like they kind of get more recognition. They’re ranked higher. I know my team in high school, we’re ranked pretty high, but I felt like we got pushed back behind those teams, just because they have a better résumé, reputation. Me, personally, I think we’re better than some of those.”
“You know, you’ve got your Floridas, your Texas, and your Californias, but I think high school football, it’s a big deal over here,” McGhee said.
Then, within that big deal, per human nature, one chunk of the big deal (say, “South Georgia”) tends to quibble with another chunk of the big deal (say, “metro Atlanta”) over which is the bigger chunk of the big deal.
“We have a little thing, like, out of South Georgia and Atlanta, so we always talk about things like that,” Smith said.
“And a lot of the times,” McKinney said, “teams from South Georgia, they think they’re better than the Atlanta teams, or the other way around. That’s usually how that story goes.”
“South Georgia’s just considered tough,” said Simmons, the analyst. “The physical toughness. The get-after-it mentality. Have to go out there and earn it, persevere.” That can stem, Simmons said, from a fear of getting overlooked, a fear an Atlantan might lack happily.
McGhee, from Peach County, which isn’t too far south on the map but qualifies as south in this discussion, puts it squarely: “You’ve got your South Georgia, where the real football is played at — middle Georgia and below. And then you’ve got your Atlanta schools — your McEacherns, your Peachtree Ridges, schools like that,” he said. “But their whole thing is we have a little argument between each other that the real ball is played down south.
“You know, we have more turnout at our games. Football, it’s big in the state of Georgia everywhere, but it’s really big down there where we’re from, not as much in Atlanta. Different things and stuff, that people do here in Atlanta.”
Just then Saturday morning, 300-pound Julian Rochester out of McEachern High near Atlanta walked by.
“He’s from an Atlanta school,” McGhee said, soon adding, “Atlanta schools, they really want to be like us, the South schools, in football.”
He said to Rochester, “Y’all trying to come where we’re at.”
And in this playoff year that has reminded us all about Georgia, Rochester said: “No, we’re not. Metro Atlanta. Metro Atlanta. Metro Atlanta.”
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