‘Georgia was honestly my second school’

NEW YORK — As high school recruits, Georgia seriously recruited two of the four 2022 Heisman Trophy finalists. It made hard efforts to try and land them, with each being in a different recruiting cycle.

Yet neither ended up at Georgia. The Bulldogs are still represented in New York, thanks to Stetson Bennett. He first walked on to the program in 2017 as a 0-star recruit and then returned as a 2019 signee.

But the Bulldogs made very serious runs at CJ Stroud in the 2020 recruiting cycle and Caleb Williams in the 2021 class.

Both quarterbacks made visits to Athens, with Stroud taking an official visit to Georgia for the 2019 Texas A&M. He was a late-rising prospect during the cycle, who saw his recruitment blow up after a standout performance at the Elite 11.

Georgia grabbed a commitment from Carson Beck in March of 2019. But the Bulldogs still made a strong pitch to try and land Stroud.

“Georgia was honestly my second school, right after Ohio State. It was really close,” Stroud said. “A lot of really good relationships I felt with coach Smart and coach (James) Coley, I had a great relationship with him.”

The 2019 season was Coley’s first as Georgia’s sole offensive coordinator. The former Georgia coach was a strong recruiter for the Bulldogs, with both Stroud and Williams noting how much he impacted their recruitments.

However, the on-field results for Coley did not match up to the talent that was on Georgia’s team. The Bulldogs averaged just 30.8 points per game — that mark was 39.3 in 2022 — in 2019 and ranked 46th in yards per play. In the three seasons under Todd Monken, the Bulldogs ranked 34th, fourth and seventh in said statistic.

“Honestly I just thought Ohio State fit me a little more,” Stroud said. “I don’t think Georgia was doing anything bad but they hadn’t seen a player like me on that side so I wasn’t really sure where to go.

“It could’ve been exciting but at the end of the day, I chose to go to Ohio State. If I had it again, I would probably do it again.”

Related: CJ Stroud offers up his first thoughts on Georgia football: ‘They have very little to no weaknesses’

Stroud redshirted his first season at Ohio State and has since been a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. Georgia will see Stroud on Dec. 31, when the Bulldogs face off against the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff. Stroud added he’s looking forward to seeing Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee, as the Ohio State quarterback believes the two still have a genuine connection.

Stroud was the No. 42 overall player in the 2020 class out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Williams was an even more coveted recruit in the 2021 recruiting cycle, as he finished as the No. 7 overall player in the class. Until Quinn Ewers reclassified, he was the No. 1 quarterback in the class.

What makes the recruitment of Williams even more interesting is that Bennett actually hosted the now-USC quarterback on his recruiting visit.

“It’s kind of funny how it came full circle. Him being here with me, it’s special,” Williams said. “We texted the other day, me and Stetson. We were upstairs and seeing each other’s faces and being the only four here is pretty special.”

Bennett did not remember too much about the experience when asked, other than sitting on the couch and watching football with Williams and Beck. Williams was in town for the 2019 Notre Dame game, which Beck also attended as a recruit.

“I just remember he was just super competitive and just chill and down to earth. Just a normal dude,” Bennett said. “Didn’t really know much about him, but just liked him and knew that he was a heck of a player.”

Coley was a pivotal figure in Williams’ recruitment, with the Georgia coach making a push to try and land the talented passer out of Washington DC But the month of January 2020 altered Williams’ recruitment significantly.

Related: Caleb Williams: The nation’s No. 1 junior QB, his Sour Patch Kids and his thoughts on UGA

First, Brock Vandagriff de-committed from Oklahoma. Like Williams, he was a 5-star prospect in the 2021 cycle. Vandagriff first committed to play for Lincoln Riley, given the success Riley had in turning Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into both Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall picks. Jalen Hurts also became a Heisman finalist while playing for Riley.

But Vandagriff backed off his pledge on New Year’s Day, in part to play closer to home. Vandagriff is from Bogart, Ga., and his Prince Avenue Christian School is about 15 minutes from Sanford Stadium.

Just over two weeks later, Georgia hired Monken to be its offensive coordinator. Georgia had hoped to keep Coley on staff, but he would later accept a job as Texas A&M’s tight ends coach.

On Jan. 21, Vandagriff went ahead and committed to Georgia and Monken. That gave Georgia the 5-star quarterback it wanted in the 2021 cycle and cleared the way for Williams to ultimately land at Oklahoma with Riley.

Williams would eventually replace Spencer Rattler midway through the 2021 season at Oklahoma and then followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC using the transfer portal, although not before once again being linked to Georgia as a transfer option. In his first full season as a starter, Williams threw for 37 touchdowns, ran for 10 more and led the Trojans to an 11-2 record. Had USC not lost to Utah in the PAC-12 championship, Georgia very likely could have been facing Williams and the Trojans in the Peach Bowl.

While many would’ve been thrilled to land either Williams or Stroud, it’s hard to argue against the success the Bulldogs have achieved under Bennett. Georgia is 27-3 with him as a starter and Bennett is the school’s first Heisman finalist since 1992. He was often at his best against top teams, scoring 17 touchdowns in five games against ranked foes.

And while all four quarterbacks — TCU’s Max Duggan is the other finalist who earned an offer from Georgia in the 2019 cycle — in New York would love to win the Heisman Trophy, they really want what Bennett already has.

The national championship.

“I tip my hat to him,” Stroud said. “He’s done great things, and he has a national championship. The guy’s a finalist, man, so he’s doing things that people were all on five-star, four-star radars hoping to do.”

Stetson Bennett shares story of hosting Caleb Williams at Heisman Trophy

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