At the Nike Football Training Camp in Tallahassee on April 17, it was clear that Derrick Henry (163) towered over all the other running back prospects. (Jeff Barlis/Staff photographer)

No other piece of recruiting news has surprised more writers in the South in recent months than the sudden verbal commitment of 2013 running back Derrick Henry, who is one of the most tantalizing athletes in the nation regardless of age, size or position.

He’s also a Gator fan.

And he’s also a Georgia Bulldogs verbal commitment.

Wait, what?

Henry, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound monster from Yulee, Fla., announced his pledge at Georgia’s one-night showcase called Dawg Night on July 15. It was a big night for recruiting news, as UGA picked up five verbals.

According to the Georgia media, it all started with Jacksonville, Fla., Bolles offensive tackle John Theus, thought by many to be the top prospect in the state this year. Theus’ brother Nathan is a freshman long-snapper at Georgia, which led most observers to deduce that his brother would follow him to Athens. John Theus flirted with Florida, indicating the Gators had a chance. But as expected, UF was just a close second at best.

The story of Dawg Night goes like this: Theus met with Camden County, Ga., quarterback Brice Ramsey, one of the elite prospects at his position for the Class of 2013. Theus indicated that he was “probably” going to commit, which inspired Ramsey to follow suit. Ramsey, an expert recruiter, then conspired to pull in two close friends and they broke the news together to an elated Mark Richt.

One of those close friends was wide receiver Tramel Terry from Goose Creek, S.C. (one of the top prospects in his state for 2013), who lived and trained with Ramsey over the summer. The other was Henry. He and Ramsey live about 15 minutes apart on either side of the Florida-Georgia border.

That night, Yulee coach Bobby Ramsay told the Athens Banner-Herald he was taken by surprise by Henry’s pledge. He also told the local paper that Richt was, too. He said Richt joked, “I’m trying to see if we can graduate (Henry) after his junior year.”

The reason so many recruiting writers were stunned by the news is because Henry had always been clear that Florida was his leader. He not only told me he was a life-long Gator fan, he showed me when I met him for the first time at the Nike Football Training Camp in Tallahassee in mid-April. His face lit up when the subject changed to his Gators. We talked about the spring game, which he watched on TV. We talked about current UF running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, big running back commitment Matt Jones and Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense.

So what really happened at Dawg Night? Did Henry merely get caught up in the excitement of the moment? Does he see a better opportunity with Georgia?

One week later, Ramsey, Henry and Henry’s coach were standing on Florida Field for Friday Night Lights. Ramsey participated, had a strong showing and spoke to Gatorsports afterward. He made it clear he was visiting Florida to be sure the Gator coaches did not stop recruiting him. He said he is keeping his options open and is wary of coaching changes and/or decommitments.

Henry did not participate or speak, but I talked at length with his coach. He said the commitment took him “very much by surprise.” He expected Georgia to be there until the end but wasn’t expecting a verbal or the timing of it. “As time went on, I felt like Florida, Georgia and probably Alabama had kind of moved away from everybody else.

“I will say I do think he wanted to slow some things down. Take that for what you will. He just wants to focus on the season and what he’s got to do academically. He wants to keep up communication with (the Florida coaches) for sure. I told Coach (Will) Muschamp, the reason we came wasn’t because of Florida, it was because of the staff. We think a lot of them and the job they’ve done, the way they’re doing things. He really respects them and likes them a lot.”

Coach Ramsay was careful not to speak for Henry. So I suggested that perhaps making a verbal commitment so early would have a similar effect as, say, a prospect naming his top three teams — it eliminates a lot of phone calls, text messages and interviews from the process.

“Absolutely,” Ramsay said. “When you do eliminate those schools, you eliminate those websites as well. Narrowing it down to the ones he’s really interested in — then instead of talking to 40 people, you’re talking to 12. And he can manage it a little more that way and focus in on what he’s got to do to get qualified and all that good stuff.”

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