ATHENS -- Justin Scott-Wesley always knew he was fast. His teammates knew he was fast. His coaches knew he was fast.
The issue was whether he could catch, run the correct route or be counted on to block downfield. That was why for the better part of two seasons Scott-Wesley languished on the Georgia football team’s depth chart, one of the team’s best athletes hardly seeing the field.
All that’s changed now, at just the right time for Scott-Wesley and his team.
Scott-Wesley, a native of Detroit by way of south Georgia, has quickly turned himself from a raw speedster into a full-fledged, well-rounded receiver. His emergence has at least softened the blow of losing star Malcolm Mitchell for the season, as Scott-Wesley leads the team in receiving yards, is second in receptions and has the team’s biggest play of the young season.
“I don’t want to be labeled,” Scott-Wesley said. “I hate being labeled as just a speed guy or just a track guy.”
But considering his history, it was hard not to be.
Scott-Wesley was born in Detroit, then he moved with his father to Camila when he was 7. He laughed at the comparison in lifestyles.
“You’ve got the big city, kind of rough in certain parts, and then you’ve got slow motion quietness of south Georgia,” Scott-Wesley said.
In the midst of that slowness, Scott-Wesley was very fast. He was a three-time state champion in track and field at Mitchell-Baker, winning the 200 meters twice and the 100 once.
Yes, he was a good football player, too, but he was far from a refined one, the product of not focusing on any one position. Mitchell-Baker had a small team, so Scott-Wesley moved around a lot.
“A little linebacker. A little corner. A little safety. Punt return, kick return,” Scott-Wesley said. “Played a little quarterback, a little running back, and also receiver.”
Georgia assistant coach Tony Ball felt he would make a good receiver, but only with time. Scott-Wesley had to learn the finer points of his position and not just running the correct route and the fundamentals of catching a pass. The Bulldogs coaches place a big emphasis on receivers’ ability to block, and fullback and offensive line were not among the positions Scott-Wesley listed on his high school resume.
There was also the crowded depth chart. But as Scott-Wesley improved in practice, other receivers got hurt, first Michael Bennett and then Marlon Brown. So as last season ended, Scott-Wesley found himself playing significant snaps.
And that’s when he started making difficult catches.
There was a critical third-down reception against Nebraska. There were a couple off-balance catches in this season’s opener against Clemson. And he made some impressive grabs across the middle of the field against Clemson and South Carolina.
“Tons of tough catches,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “He kind of rolled out one play and made a tough catch over the middle when guys were all over him.”
But when it came time for his biggest moment, it was all about the speed.
During the third quarter against South Carolina, Scott-Wesley got wide open along the left sideline. Murray found him for what he figured was a good 40-yard gain. But then Scott-Wesley turned on that track speed and turned it into an 85-yard touchdown to give Georgia a 41-30 lead.
“It still blows my mind how that dude didn’t tackle him,” Murray said. “He caught the ball and I said, OK a great gain, 40-yard gain, get tackled, we’ll go from there.”
Then Murray made a whooshing sound.
“He took off. He’s unbelievable the speed he has,” he said.
But it’s also nice to have the rest of the skill set to go with that speed, and it took awhile to put it all together.
“I’d be the first to tell you that,” Scott-Wesley said. “I stayed here, stayed working, perfected my craft -- or tried to perfect my craft -- as a receiver, and got better every day.”