Kentucky is back in a bowl game, and Saturday’s opponent — Georgia Tech — is a team that hasn’t exactly been a recruiting juggernaut in recent years.
The Yellow Jackets’ roster boasts just four players who were rated as four-star prospects out of high school, and the program has had only one top-40 national recruiting class in the past nine years (the No. 38 class in 2015).
Still, Coach Paul Johnson and the Jackets have enjoyed success on the field. Georgia Tech had appeared in bowl games in 18 straight seasons before missing out on the postseason last year, bouncing back this fall with an 8-4 record and a spot in the TaxSlayer Bowl opposite the Wildcats.
Here’s a breakdown of where Tech’s players were ranked as recruits, with some comparisons to how they stack up — recruiting-wise — to UK’s roster (all rankings from Rivals.com):
Georgia Tech has zero five-star players, four four-star players, 54 three-star players and 13 two-star players on its roster.
By comparison: UK has one five-star recruit (true freshman offensive lineman Landon Young), 14 four-star recruits, 49 three-star recruits and 10 two-star recruits on its roster this season.
Georgia Tech’s projected offensive and defensive starting lineup — based on this week’s depth chart — includes two four-star recruits, 17 three-star recruits and three two-star recruits.
By comparison: Among UK’s expected starters, the Cats have four four-star starters (TE C.J. Conrad, RB Boom Williams, WR Dorian Baker and safety Mike Edwards), 12 three-star starters, five two-star starters (including QB Stephen Johnson) and one starter who was not ranked in high school (LT Cole Mosier).
Senior quarterback Justin Thomas is one of Tech’s four players who were ranked as four-star recruits, and he’s the only such player expected to start for the Yellow Jackets on offense.
Thomas — a 5-foot-11 native of Prattville, Ala. — was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 19 athlete and No. 233 prospect nationally in the class of 2012, and he had committed to the home-state Crimson Tide at one point in his recruitment. Alabama wanted to keep him, but Thomas wanted to play quarterback, and his style didn’t seem like a great fit for the Tide’s offense at the time.
He flipped his commitment to Georgia Tech a couple of months before national signing day and emerged as the Yellow Jackets’ starting quarterback at the beginning of his sophomore season. He’s one of 41 players in NCAA Division I FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and run for more than 2,000 yards.
Recruiting the triple option
Coach Paul Johnson has had a lot of success running the unique triple option, but recruits with dreams of playing in the NFL are often looking for something closer to a pro-style offense.
A couple of years ago, Johnson talked to Sirius XM College Sports Nation about recruiting against such a mentality (transcription from FootballScoop.com).
“Just take wide receivers, for instance. We probably got more wide receivers in the NFL than any other team in the ACC, if you really look.” Johnson said. “I think what the offense does is it gives you a chance for a lot of one-on-one coverage, and allows you to create a lot of big plays. You know, would you rather have 35 or 40 catches for 1,000 yards or 90 catches for 600 yards?”
Johnson also mentioned Justin Thomas’ previous commitment to Alabama before flipping to Georgia Tech.
“Quarterback is just like anything else, in the essence that a lot of the guys that we recruit to play quarterback, are recruited to play other positions at other teams,” he said. “For instance, our quarterback now, Justin Thomas, was committed to play for the University of Alabama as a defensive back, but he wanted a chance to play quarterback in our system, and he fit and had a great skill set.
“It’s one of those negative recruiting things that everyone keeps saying, but it goes in cycles. At first it was that ‘the offense wouldn’t work on this level,’ then ‘you couldn’t recruit to it.’ Now as long as we can find a way to keep winning, I guess they’ll have to come up with something else.”
No five stars
Rivals.com online rankings date back to the class of 2002, and the Yellow Jackets have never had a five-star signee during that period.
They did, however, land a highly touted wide receiver in 2004 who went on to do some good things.
Calvin Johnson was ranked as the nation’s No. 6 receiver and No. 37 overall prospect when he signed with Georgia Tech, then coached by Chan Gailey.
Johnson ultimately became the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns — in just three seasons — before being selected by the Detroit Lions with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Johnson was arguably the league’s best wide receiver in the years that followed before announcing his retirement in March.
The five wide receivers who were ranked ahead of Johnson in that 2004 recruiting class: Early Doucet (Louisiana State), Cameron Colvin (Oregon), Fred Davis (Southern Cal), Lance Leggett (Miami) and Xavier Carter (LSU).
UK vs. Georgia Tech in the recruiting rankings