ATHENS -- It was a small moment but one that still makes Hugh Williams smile. After an extra-point kick at Clemson three weeks ago, Williams turned to the place-kicker, Patrick Beless.
“I turned around and gave him a high-five, and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Williams said. “It kind of hit me that we’re actually playing in a top-10 game.”
Williams and Beless, besides being high school teammates, both walked-on to the Georgia football team.
So did Connor Norman, who started the first two games at strong safety. So did Blake Sailors, a special teams gunner who will serve as one of the team’s four captains Saturday against North Texas.
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The list goes on: Rhett McGowan had two catches in Georgia’s win over South Carolina and has been one of the team’s top punt returners. Merritt Hall started six games at fullback last year and is currently the second-teamer. Parker Welch was the first quarterback off the bench last year. Beless was the team's second-leading scorer through two games this year.
The Georgia football program will spend more than $1 million specifically on recruiting expenses this year, in addition to the man hours by coaches calling, texting and messaging high school players.
And yet once again it is dependant, if just to fill in some holes, on players who basically walked in off the street.
“We’ve always tried to give everybody a fair shot,” head coach Mark Richt said. “If a guy starts showing that he can play -- I mean Rhett McGowan was a guy that just little by little, we kept watching him practice and said, ‘This guy can play.’ There’s guys who are working their way into that situation right now.”
The reliance on walk-ons stems in large part from the attrition that befell the program following the 2010 and 2011 seasons. For the past three years, the team hasn’t filled out its full allotment of 85 scholarships via recruited players, meaning several walk-ons have been awarded scholarships. Sailors, for instance, has been on scholarship for three straight years.
But many of the walk-ons aren’t just fill-ins. They’re beating out scholarship players. Norman has been starting over several other options. McGowan has been a member of the receiving rotation for three years, ahead of recruited players. Hall and Brandon Harton have gotten a lot of work in the backfield the past few years.
“I haven’t seen (McGowan) as a walk-on for forever,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “He’s honestly probably our best guy at getting off the press. Of all our receivers, scholarship, non-scholarship, you don’t want to press Rhett. He’s gonna get off it. I don’t shy away from him at all.”
Every story is different. Norman, Beless and McGowan are among those who just showed up. Sailors was a preferred walk-on, helped by being a high school teammate of quarterback recruit Zach Mettenberger.
Georgia does have a walk-on program, which is currently run by recruiting coordinator Daryl Jones. The NCAA allows a team to carry up to 125 players, 40 more than the scholarship limit, so assistant coaches usually have their eye out for somebody who has potential.
“It’s critical that you recruit walk-ons, because recruiting is not an exact science,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Kids take off at different stages of their careers. And there’s a need, numbers-wise. And then it gives you more options.”
Through the years walk-ons have contributed often: fullback Verron Haynes (who went on to an NFL career), quarterback Cory Phillips (who had four touchdown passes in a 2000 game), Richard Tardits (29 career sacks) and place-kicker Billy Bennett (who finished his career with 29 NCAA, SEC and school records). Three starters on the 1980 national championship team walked on.
Jones said more help could be on the way, beyond the ones already contributing.
“The season is still young, and later this year fans might see somebody make a play or two and wonder, who is that? And it’ll turn out to be someone who walked on,” Jones said.
Williams only weighed 200 pounds coming out of high school and was lightly recruited, although he did have an offer from Air Force. But his dream was Georgia. So he went to a summer camp, which Georgia is required by the NCAA to make open for everybody,
“Just a longshot. Kind of a dream,” Williams said.
At that camp Williams impressed then-assistant coach Stacy Searels enough that he was invited to walk on. Williams is now the second tight end on goal-line and short-yardage units and is on the field goal-extra point unit.
“Definitely starting out the ones who are on scholarship are gonna get the first shots. But if one of them is hurt, or one of them keeps screwing up, you’ve got to be ready and know what to do,” Williams said. “I set a goal, and I worked hard. And I earned playing time.”