Living here in Atlanta, people think I'm a North Carolina State fan when they see my Mitch Johnson jersey. (Okay, the No. 1 jersey I bought in spring 2004 was probably sold with Josh Childress in mind, but it’ll always be MJ’s uni to me.) I get quizzical looks when I ask for the Stanford game at the bar, or if I’m especially lucky, drunk Georgia fans barking like dogs for their team and telling me that’s how real football is played.
Such is life, I imagine, for many Stanford fans living in Bay Area diaspora, and certainly for us alums here in Georgia, smack in the heart of the self-proclaimed home of “real football,” the SEC. But then came along Chase Thomas, a defensive end who set into motion a chain of events that might just change that dynamic entirely.
Thomas probably didn’t know he was going to be the start of something bigger when he committed to the Card in December 2007 as part of Jim Harbaugh’s first full recruiting class. He was only a three-star prospect to Scout and Rivals, and Scout’s No. 81 defensive end in the country. That’s not the type of profile you’d expect to generate a major splash, but the competition for Thomas’ services was intense.
The Marietta prospect ultimately chose Stanford over offers from LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, putting the state squarely on notice: Stanford might not play in a “real football” conference, but it could sure recruit right in its backyard. It wasn’t just the SEC though: local recruits and fans -- and probably even the Stanford coaching staff itself -- realized that the Card could compete in Georgia, and they could win.
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Like many of this year’s Stanford recruits, Henry Anderson is excited about the Card's recruiting -- and one Georgia commit in particular. Though it’s early, the Card are looking on pace, at a minimum, to wrap up their second straight top-20 class, and Anderson said he was excited about the possibility of playing with such a collection of talent.
“I watched Tai-Ler Jones commit the other day – I saw the video on the internet and he seemed excited,” Anderson said. “Plus, Chase Thomas went to school in Georgia, and talked to me about his
recruiting process [on Anderson’s unofficial visit.] It was kind of similar to mine.”
The idea of a pipeline, of course, is that past success makes it
easier to land future recruits from the same area. If Henry Anderson
is any guide, that pipeline appears up and flowing. That Thomas was a fellow Georgian piqued Anderson’s interest, and once Thomas had Anderson’s ear, he made sure to plug his program.
“He was kind of looking for the same stuff I am – a good academic school, but also a school he could play at and not just sit on the bench for four or five years, and also a good football school,” Anderson said of Thomas. “Stanford is on the right track there.
"[Thomas] told me how great Stanford was and said the coaches were awesome. He liked Coach Durkin a lot, and seemed excited with where he was at Stanford."
Indeed, as the only Georgian presently on the roster, Thomas is understandably crucial in recruiting current Peach State targets, like Anderson and safety Daunte Carr, both fellow metro-Atlantans (or, as the local pop stars say, ATLiens). And while Thomas is just finishing his sophomore year, his presence has paid major dividends already.
In 2009, Stanford turned to its Georgia pipeline to sign four-star wide receiver Jamal Rashard Patterson, a centerpiece of one of the nation’s most surprising classes. And while it’s yet to been seen whether Patterson will live up to fans’ lofty expectations once he hits the field, he has already drawn more than his fair share of coverage without playing a single down.
First, Jamal Patterson committed to the Card over Florida, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Alabama and Tennessee, among others. That list garners instant respect anywhere, but especially so in the South. With a single penstroke on National Signing Day, therefore, Patterson brought more local credibility and attention to Stanford football than a team of marketers could hope in a decade’s worth of work.
Later that same month, February 2009, Patterson won the Watkins Award, awarded annually to the nation’s top African-American student-athlete. Like his commitment, Patterson’s award generated additional headlines for Stanford in recruiting circles and major metropolitan newspapers alike.
Patterson, meanwhile, played a central role in landing a recruit of a (slightly) higher profile yet in fellow metro-Atlanta wide receiver Tai-ler Jones. Jones committed to the Card last Thursday over Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame and Alabama, among others – in no small part due to Patterson.
“We talk almost every day through text messages or on the phone,” Jones said of Patterson. “He’s a great guy. He really helped me make my decision, because I’m going to be surrounded by people like him at Stanford, and those are the kind of people that will help me better myself on and off the field. Whether I want them to or not, just their presence is going to make me better. Going to Stanford already knowing and being close to somebody like that will make the transition a lot easier. And he’s from Georgia, so we’ll both have the same feelings about being 3,000 miles away.”
In turn, Jones’ announcement set off yet another wave of positive publicity for Stanford football, making it all the more likely for an Anderson or a Carr – Jones’ high-school teammate this upcoming season – will continue the westward migration of Peach State talent.
Maintaining this trend in the months and years to come becomes all the more important given that Georgia arguably represents the most fertile recruiting ground in the country. A recent ESPN story ranked Georgia high school football as behind only Texas’, California’s and Florida’s, all states with double Georgia’s population, and ahead of the larger (and more hyped) Ohio’s and Pennsylvania’s.
No one knows the strength of Georgia high school football better than Jones, and he argues that Stanford needs to continue to exploit its Georgia inroads.
“I think it is important, because in order to compete with the bigger teams like Southern Cal, or a team like Florida or Oklahoma that we’d play if we ended up in the National Championship, you’re going to need a good number of high-profile athletes,” he said. “The staff could turn athletes that are a tier under those high-profile athletes into better athletes, but they could turn those high-profile athletes into great athletes.”
Stanford’s coaching staff divides its recruiting responsibilities not only by position, but also by geographic region. One coach in particular has Georgia, Florida and Kentucky as his area, and Jones says he is already paying dividends for the Card in the Peach State.
“It’s Coach Willie Taggart,” Jones said of Stanford’s running backs coach, who was raised in Florida before playing quarterback at college in Kentucky. “He contributed a lot. The relationship I developed with him was the best: it’s incomparable to any other.
“He gained my trust from day one, when I talked to him on the phone. That’s really big, because going 3,000 miles away from home, I’m not going to go home every weekend like some of these other guys. To have that coach to go and talk to -- and maybe be able to go and stay with him and his family to get that at-home feeling -- that’s big for me.”
Taggart and Stanford’s coaching staff have the majority of this year’s recruiting class still to sign, but already, one fact is clear: Georgia has played a major role in shaping the immediate future of Stanford football, and its centrality will only increase if the Card are to become consistent winners in the years to come.
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