Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell is congratulated by fans after his team defeated Tennessee, 20-12, this past Saturday. Crowell, and his fellow freshmen -- dubbed by Georgia coach Mark Richt as the "Dream Team'' during their recruitment -- are a big reason the Bulldogs are one of the hottest teams in the SEC.
ATHENS -- After landing one of his most heralded signing classes in February, Georgia coach Mark Richt called the group "my dream team."
Halfway through the season Richt says the class has played up to its billing. Top freshmen include the team's leading rusher, Isaiah Crowell, and leading receiver, Malcolm Mitchell. Linebacker Amarlo Herrera has started four games and is tied for fourth on the team with 24 tackles.
WHO: Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC) at Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2 SEC).
WHAT: SEC East showdown.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Nashville, Tenn.
RADIO: WGPC-AM 1450 or WJAD-FM 103.5.
LINE: Georgia by 11 points.
In all, 15 members of the signing class have played this season. The newcomers have helped Georgia recover from an 0-2 start with four straight wins as it enters Saturday night's game at Vanderbilt.
Richt said this week he is "extremely pleased with the class."
"There is no question that we signed a bunch of great players," he said. "I really believe that. Before their careers are over, they are going to make tremendous contributions to this football team."
Crowell, from Carver-Columbus, hasn't waited to make a big splash.
Crowell ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference with 573 yards rushing. He has been named the league's freshman of the week three times in six weeks.
After rushing for more than 100 yards in wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Crowell added 58 yards rushing with two touchdowns in Georgia's 20-12 win at Tennessee last week.
"I've been pleased with his progress, and I think he's learning every week," Richt said. "He's getting better every week. I think if he keeps growing he's really going to be something special."
Mitchell, who will miss the Vanderbilt game with a hamstring injury, has 25 catches for 438 yards, ranking in the SEC's top five in both categories.
With Mitchell out, freshman Chris Conley, who has had receptions each of the last two weeks, could play a bigger role.
Conley said he had no assurance he would play this season before he made his first appearance in Georgia's fourth game at Mississippi.
"It was sort of up in the air," Conley said. "I talked to my coaches about it and they didn't really give me an answer. They said it was still an evaluation, they wanted to see how I keep developing and ultimately they said that decision would be made around game five. It was made a little earlier than that, though."
Another new name at wide receiver has been redshirt freshman Michael Bennett, who is fourth on the team with 11 catches for 101 yards. Conley (6-3, 180) and Bennett (6-3, 208) are big targets for quarterback Aaron Murray.
Bennett joked he'd have a better chance for big plays if only Murray, listed at 6-foot-1, also was taller.
"I was open a few times and he didn't see me," Bennett said, before adding "That's because he's like 5-foot-6."
As reporters around the receiver laughed, Bennett said he was just kidding.
"It's all right," he said. "We'll get that figured out. I'm just glad to be on the field playing."
Crowell's path at tailback was cleared by the exits of Washaun Ealey and Caleb King.
There hasn't been an immediate opportunity for some other top signees, including tight end Jay Rome. The position was already deep with Orson Charles, Aron White and Arthur Lynch, even after Bruce Figgins moved to fullback.
Herrera had to move up as a starter after Georgia's two starting inside linebackers, Christian Robinson and Alec Ogletree, were hurt the first two weeks.
"If we were loaded at linebacker, he might have been a guy who redshirted," said Richt of Herrera. "You love it when the guys do get to play because those experiences make them so much better year two."
Freshman Ramik Wilson is a top backup at inside linebacker.
Another key member of the signing class is junior college transfer John Jenkins, who is pushing Kwame Geathers at nosetackle. Jenkins made his first start against Tennessee.
Richt said he hasn't lost confidence in the freshmen who are being redshirted.
"The guys who redshirt we think are still very talented," he said.
Richt said Bennett "is having a tremendous redshirt freshman year" and is an example of a player who took advantage of having a year to prepare.
"Would he have been this productive a year ago?" asked Richt. "I don't think there was any chance of that because of the depth at that position."