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February 1, 2013
The Georgia that Todd Wofford coaches in today isn't the Georgia that he played in 20 years ago.
Some things, of course, are steadfast. There are still roughly 1,000 street names that include the word "peach," and visitors still draw funny looks when ordering unsweetened tea. But the football scene, well, that's evolving.
Pigskin has always been king in Georgia. People here have been consulting football schedules when planning weddings since long before the days of Herschel Walker, Garrison Hearst or Hines Ward. This is the South, after all.
But ask Wofford, the head coach at perennial powerhouse Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, or any of his peers, and they'll argue that the talent being produced in these parts is trending toward going head-to-head with that of any state.
Yes, even Texas. Yes, even California. And, yup, even Florida. Wofford's take is ambitious if not totally biased. But he freely admits that much.
"Obviously, California and Texas are bigger states with more bodies, but there's as much talent here as any state in the country per size," he said. "I'm biased, but I think this talent can compete with the guys from any other state. There are schools that go outside of Georgia and play teams and beat them ... and beat them bad."
Even under a magnifying glass, there's something behold. Has Georgia turned the "Big 3" into the "Big 4?" Not just yet, but the gap is closing.
Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 player in the 2013 class, is a Georgia product. As is Carl Lawson, the No. 4 prospect. No. 25 overall, Montravius Adams? Yeah, he played high school football here, too. Eight of the top 80 players in the Rivals100 did. And that's just this year.
Last year's top 100 featured eight players from Georgia. The top 250 included 17. What we have here is a trend -- albeit one in its infancy.
"I can't speak to what it was before because I've only been recruiting there four years," said University of Florida assistant coach Brian White. "All I know is that there has been a lot of talent every year I've recruited there. The coaches do a great job of coaching. That what jumps out. The players are extremely well coached. It's all resourced very well, and they're all fundamentally sound."
[ MORE: Top prospect Nkemdiche set to visit LSU ]
There are some not-so-sexy reasons for the uptick, too. Fourteen Georgia counties rank among the fastest growing counties in America. Atlanta, a city of 5.4 million people, was named the 10th-fastest growing city in America by Forbes Magazine last year. The talent pool keeps getting larger and so, too, does the state's reputation as a recruiting hotbed.
Whatever the case, word was out long ago. This little run of top-flight players isn't so little. And it sure isn't a fluke. University of Miami assistant coach Art Kehoe treads lightly when discussing it. He isn't interested to comparing the talent in Georgia to the talent in Florida. Offending either party hurts his cause. There are some things, however, he feels comfortable spitting out.
"I'm just really impressed with the level of football and the top talent of recruits they have at seemingly every position," Kehoe said. "I got to dip into south Georgia this year. I don't know how that compares to anyone else. I just know it's damn good."
Georgia isn't some secret lair of football talent. Those days are long over. That's apparent when Milton High School athletic director Gary Sylvestri shows you the 95 business cards he accumulated from college coaches over a 10-day period this spring. And when he tells you 10 players from his school will sign Division I letters of intent on National Signing Day, it makes sense.
"I truly believe the talent between Florida and Georgia is kind of equaling out now," said Sylvestri, who has coached in Florida and Georgia. "The last couple years, it's really equaled out. I put those 95 cars on the board to show the kids and the parents.
"The coaches in Georgia are phenomenal. Kids are really getting coached up all over the state. The kids up here, their football IQ is really getting better because of that."
The whole lack-of-an-offseason thing doesn't hurt, either. There was no such thing as a Georgia-based 7-on-7 tournament when Wofford was in school. These days, he runs one of many that have popped up all over the state. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton sponsors another. The results of the nearly 365-day operation are in the (bread) pudding.
"Don't forget, in Georgia, when we're done in the playoff, we're back in the weight room grinding," Sylvestri said. "We can't put on pads or practice, but we are running and grinding in the weight room and playing 7-on-7 at night in the summer. There's no time off here. There is no offseason. I don't think the out-of-season programs are as strong in other states. That helps equal the playing field. You're seeing that in the recruiting game."
The state's name probably isn't on the marquee just yet. If it is, it's in fine print under the words "Texas", "California" and "Florida." And that's just fine by everyone in Georgia.
They're content with working toward a lofty goal. In fact, it's what they hope defines them.