ATHENS -- Chris Mayes didn’t join the Georgia team this year expecting to just sit and wait a season before playing. In fact, he knew that wasn’t really an option.
“We just came off playing at one of the highest levels of JUCO football, at Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Mayes said. “And so expectations are high. Both nose guards left. I had to step up to the challenge.”
Mayes, who has 13 tackles and a sack this year, has been part of a surprisingly stout Georgia run defense, especially up the middle. So has fellow junior college transfer Toby Johnson, but to a much lesser extent. Otherwise, Georgia has gotten very little out of its junior college players thus far.
Typically, a team signs such players hoping for an immediate impact. They are more physically mature by virtue of being two years out of high school and usually have already played two years. Mayes is an exception, having redshirted one year at junior college and thus is a sophomore this year.
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Georgia has had recent success in the junior college route in the past. Junior college nose tackle John Jenkins was one of the key members of Georgia’s “Dream Team” class in 2011 and spent two years anchoring the nose tackle spot.
Mark Beard, the team’s only junior college transfer in the 2012 class, has played in every game the past two years, starting twice.
This year, Georgia signed five junior college players, by far the most ever in one class under head coach Mark Richt. But one of those players (defensive back Kennar Johnson) hasn’t played at all, another played in one game and is pursuing a redshirt (safety Shaquille Fluker), and another saw his first action just last week (Jonathan Rumph).
Even Mayes estimates he only plays 30 percent of the snaps in a game. Johnson, a more ballyhooed prospect when he signed last spring, has played even less.
But Richt doesn’t consider it a failure.
“We just wanted to bring them all in and compete, and whoever’s ready to play, play them. And if they’re not, that’s OK,” Richt said. “In years past, if we took a junior college guy, we were thinking that he would play right away, or at least you’re hoping he would play right away. In this class, we were just trying to find good football players, and if they’re ready this year, good, and if not, it could be next year.”
Georgia’s entire signing class was 33 players, and all but two joined the team. So there was some cushion, and if the junior college prospects have to wait a year, that’s fine. But the Bulldogs probably would have been better off if the impact was immediate, except for Mayes, who has played a lot at nose tackle.
“He’s been pretty much what I thought he would be,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s been a pretty significant player in there. He doesn’t necessarily have the flash maybe that some of the other guys that you guys look at, but he’s been pretty stout. And I think he’s allowed us to have pretty good interior run defense.”
Toby Johnson has helped, too, although not to the extent that was hoped when he signed. He was the highest-rated member of the junior college class but only has three tackles this year, playing in seven of the nine games.
Fluker was a possibility to start at safety but has been felled by preseason injuries and then an unspecified illness. He is pursuing a medical redshirt, while first-year freshmen (Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger) have been pushed into action.
“Physically, he’s as talented as the guys we’ve got,” Grantham said. “In this game, you can watch it any level, high school, college or pro, there’s a small line between (whether) you’re in the rotation, you’re in the group, and then you’re left behind. That’s why it’s so critical that guys come in in shape, that guys work so hard in August. Because if you miss the time, somebody’s getting the opportunity and they’re gonna show what they can do.”
Kennar Johnson, a cornerback, has not come close to playing time and will redshirt.
“We were so short at our numbers, particularly at corner and safety, that you kind of had to take guys, and it was almost like you had to take this group of guys, and then we’re gonna work them and see who can come out of it,” Grantham said. “And it just so happened that the freshmen came out of it as the guys that could play and contribute.”
Then there’s Rumph, a 6-foot-5 prospect. Rumph’s season has been derailed by injuries. He suffered a high hamstring injury in the preseason, then when it felt ready to return, prior to the North Texas game, he aggravated it.
Then when he finally did get on the field against Florida, he only played 10 snaps and did not have a pass thrown his way.
“If it wasn’t meant for me to get on the field, that’s what it was,” Rumph said. “But when I did get a chance to get on the field, I did play as hard as I could. ... You’ve gotta be patient. Your opportunity comes, and you’ve gotta take advantage of it. I learned that from going to JUCO. You’ve got to always be patient, and when your opportunity comes, and you see your crack, you’ve gotta hit it.”