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For a good number of years, many football lovers in the southeastern part of this state thought college recruiters might be overlooking high school prospects in their area … in the 912 -area code of Georgia.

High school football in South Georgia has always ranked up there with the best played anywhere. Draw a line across the lower part of the state — from down in the southwest corner at Bainbridge and Thomasville, up to Moultrie and Tift County, over to Valdosta and then on through Waycross to Jesup and Brunswick and then down to Kingsland/St. Marys and back over to Folkston and Homerville.





While the Atlanta Metro area and heavily populated surrounding counties have produced the most college football prospects, due to sheer numbers alone, there’s a long, long list of great players from the Bainbridge Bearcats, the Thomasville Bulldogs and Thomas County Central Yellow Jackets, the Colquitt County Packers, Valdosta Wildcats, Lowndes High Vikings, Ware County Gators, Wayne County Yellow Jackets, Brunswick High Pirates, Glynn Academy Red Terrors, Camden County Wildcats, Charlton County Indians and Clinch County Panthers, who have gone on to dot SEC teams’ rosters as well as the other college teams throughout the land.

But maybe unlike the heavily recruited hotbeds of Valdosta and Moultrie in the southern part of the state, the high schools that comprise the 912-area code haven’t always had a steady flow of major college recruiting traffic come through their athletic buildings … not when you go back many years in comparison to schools, as mentioned, in the metro Atlanta and middle Georgia areas. Savannah would be that exception due, again, to its size and the many high schools that are in Chatham County. Sure, there have been players such as Willie McClendon, Lindsay Scott and Champ Bailey come out of the 912 but then, what recruiter could miss on such great talents as these? A recent example of such stellar prospects would be Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker, all out of Brunswick High School and currently playing in the NFL.

I’m saying all this, referring to maybe some recruiting omissions in southeast Georgia in the past, to now point out that college recruiters, both from the Power 5 schools as well as the smaller college programs, are presently combing the 912 area of Georgia with, well, a fine-tooth comb. Not many stones are left unturned when an outstanding prospect shows up on the schools’ radar. And they’re offering these kids full rides earlier than ever. Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart was in southeast Georgia the week of January 16 and it’s been documented that Georgia has already offered Brunswick High freshman tight end Heze Kent, 6-6, 240, and Charlton County sophomore tight end and edge rusher Elyiss Williams, 6-6, 235. … among others. Brunswick senior offensive tackle Jamal Meriweather committed to the Bulldogs back in the early signing period.





And to get a better picture of how the 912 area is currently producing football players that are making a huge impact on the college front, I advise you to look at the back-to-back national champion Georgia Bulldogs.

Stetson “The Mailman” Bennett, Warren McClendon, Jack Podlesny and Nolan Smith … all 912 area high school players who played major roles – and then some– for the program’s first-ever 15-0 football team in 2022.

What else can you say about Bennett, the 5-11, 190-pounder out of Blackshear in Pierce County who defied all the odds to pass and run the Bulldogs to the back-to-back natty crowns and records of 14-1 and that unblemished 15-0 mark this past season? Back in the fall of 2017 when Bennett, as a walk-on to Georgia was running the scout team offense, what would you have said if someone had predicted this kid is going to become the best quarterback in UGA’s history and lead us to consecutive national championships? Absolutely no one could have imagined such a scenario, that is, except maybe Stetson himself!

All the Mailman did in the 2022 campaign was pass for a new UGA single-season yardage record with 4,127 yards and 27 touchdowns and run for 205 net yards and 10 more touchdowns. Bennett’s total yards passing broke the school record of 3,893 yards set by Aaron Murray in the 2012 season, with Murray playing one less game than Bennett.

Bennett, who posted a 29-3 win-loss record as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, also set a new season accuracy standard, his 68.28 completion percentage mark toppling the previous program record of 67.87 set by Hutson Mason in 2014. Bennett, of course, was one of the four finalists for the Heisman Trophy and won the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the best player nationally that began his career as a walk-on. Bennett was named MVP in all four CFP games he played in over the past two years, including the two national championship wins. In the 65-7 romp over TCU on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles, Bennett accounted for six of Georgia’s touchdowns … four passing and two running.

He also was selected as the winner of the 2022 Manning Award, presented by the Allstate Sugar Bowl to the top quarterback in the nation.

McClendon, the 6-4, 300-pound junior tackle from Brunswick High School, the nephew of Willie McClendon and cousin of former UGA player and now receivers coach Bryan McClendon, was named to the 2022 Coaches All-SEC first team and was regarded by many as the most technically-correct offensive lineman on the team. He started Georgia’s first 13 games this season at right tackle before being injured in the SEC title win over LSU. That, after starting all 15 games for the 2021 Bulldog national champions. In the 2020 season McClendon was named to the Freshman All-America team.

Jack Podlesny, who didn’t even consider playing college football until his senior year at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, came to Georgia as a walk-on after first being offered in the same role by the University of Michigan. The St. Simons Island native quickly developed into one of the program’s all-time place-kickers, being named to the Associated Press and Coaches’ All-SEC teams this past season as well as the SEC’s Special Teams Player of the Year. “Pod” was true on 26 of 31 field goal attempts and 73 of 74 PAT kicks in the 2022 campaign. Also handling the kickoff assignment, Podlesny sent 73 of his kicks into the end zone for touchbacks. He was one of 30 kickers named to the preseason watch list for the Lou Groza Award, which goes annually to the nation’s top kicker and was won by his Bulldog predecessor, Rodrigo Blankenship, in 2019.

Last but by no means least of the “Big Four” from the 912 area is outside linebacker Nolan Smith, who hails from Savannah while playing his high school ball at IMG in Florida. Although the 6-3, 235-pound Smith played in only eight games due to an injury in the Florida game, he was undoubtedly headed for All-America honors at his position before the Bulldogs’ 42-20 win over the Gators marked the end of his season. Smith had recorded 18 total tackles and a team-high 16 quarterback hurries up until then. Smith, who started 14 of 15 games for the 2021 champions and notched 56 tackles with 9.0 for loss and 3.5 sacks, was named Second Team preseason All-America by Athlon and was on the watch list for both the Outland Trophy and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

But don’t think Nolan Smith took a lesser role with the team after his injury in Jacksonville. He practically became one of the Bulldogs’ coaches, spending each of the seven remaining games on the sidelines giving pointers to his defensive teammates, shouting encouragement and generally keeping the entire team fired up and motivated through the Dawgs’ end of the season and playoff run.

While Bennett, McClendon, Podlesny and Smith are all now headed for the NFL Draft, another 912- area guy, defensive lineman Warren Brinson, is set to return as Georgia chases a 3-peat national crown in 2023. And the 6-4, 305-pound junior, who like Smith is from Savannah and played at IMG, should be a key cog in the Bulldogs’ defense this coming fall. This past season Brinson played in all 15 games while notching 12 tackles and 14 quarterback hurries.

And showing promise for the coming seasons in Athens are two more southeast Georgia products, redshirt freshman offensive guard Micah Morris from Camden County and freshman outside linebacker Darris Smith, from Baxley in Appling County.

Yes, 912 area code football fans, now Kirby Smart and all of the head coaches in the Deep South and elsewhere will always have your bottom right hand corner of the state high on their prospects shopping list. Go Dawgs and the 912!





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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.