ATHENS -- Kenneth Towns and Blake Tibbs have been Georgia wide receivers for the same amount of time. Their stories, however, and their levels of happiness to this point, are very different.
Towns is a walk-on who has had to pay his way off the field and earn it on the practice field. Tibbs was recruited on scholarship, but he spent most of the past two seasons affixed to the bench, questioning whether he belonged at this level.
But as this season gets set to begin, this pair of third-year sophomores, each with two career catches, are in position to make a move.
Seniors Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are definite starters. But the health questions around Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley leave an opening in a Georgia offense that 72 percent of the time last year was a three-receiver lineup.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see the dynamics of Malcolm and Justin Scott probably out, really who’s gonna be where,” quarterback Hutson Mason said.
Towns being a factor shouldn’t be a surprise, given Georgia’s recent history with walk-on receivers. But Towns was not a typical walk-on.
Three years ago, he was committed to UAB coming out of high school from Westover in Albany. But when UAB fired head coach Neil Callaway (the former Georgia assistant coach), the scholarship offer disappeared, and Towns said other schools had their receiver spots filled.
Central Florida was interested. Tyson Summers, who has ties to south Georgia, was hired to UCF’s staff and was interested in Towns as a safety. But Towns preferred coming to Georgia with a chance to play receiver.
“I had high expectations for myself. I wanted to come in and make plays,” Towns said. “I didn’t wanna come in and just contribute a little bit. I wanted to make myself known.”
He did after Georgia’s second scrimmage this preseason, when he racked up 10 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. Towns, listed at 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds, described himself as a physical receiver, specializing in getting off the jam at the line of scrimmage and blocking downfield.
Mason described Towns another way: Dependable.
“Kenny’s not gonna be one of those guys who’s really gonna attract a lot of attention, but he’s gained the trust of me, he’s gained the trust of the coaches,” Mason said. “You just throw the ball, he catches it. And you’d be surprised, for some guys that’s pretty hard.”
Tibbs may have been one of those players early on in his career. A three-star recruit out of high school from Martin Luther King in Lithonia, he got so desperate for playing time last year that he begged then-assistant coach Kirk Olivadotti to put him on kickoff. He only played in two games, getting lone catches against Missouri and Appalachian State.
“It’s more mental. You second-guess your talent,” Tibbs said. “So that’s something I had to overcome, and just control the things I can control. If I know what to do, if I’m running my routes right, the coaches are gonna see it. I’m starting to see the results that I want.”
It started turning around for Tibbs in mat drills this year, before spring practice. Tibbs said he just decided he had had enough of the bench.
“It’s funny,” Tibbs said. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re in college, you’re playing football for one of the best teams in the league.’ But it’s tough. You’re going from being the man at your school and coming here and being basically nobody. So it’s a tough pill to swallow, and I feel like I handled it pretty well.”
This month, Tibbs said he has been getting some first-team reps alongside Conley and Bennett, and he occasionally has subbed in for them in a two-receiver set. Head coach Mark Richt said Tibbs was an example of a player who has matured into a dependable player.
“It was not ever a skill-set issue,” Richt said. “It was always, ‘Could we count on him to do what we wanted him to do on a consistent basis?’ But he struggled, and, to his credit, he’s earned some playing time.”
Towns has too, according to Richt. It remains to be seen how much, especially once Mitchell and Scott-Wesley return. But in the meantime, both sophomores are savoring the chance.
“As far as the coaches and team, they know what I can do. I just wanna show everyone in (Bulldogs) Nation what I can do,” Towns said. “They know my name, but they don’t know what I can do. I’m just really anxious to go play this year.”