Georgia's senior walk-ons head between the hedges for final time

semerson@macon.comNovember 22, 2013 

UGA_v_FL

Georgia’s Rhett McGowan, left, looks for clear space to make a third-down conversion on the final drive of Georgia’s win over Florida on Saturday. McGowan got the first down, and Georgia ran the clock down for the victory.

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ATHENS -- Parker Welch just wanted to be able to say he was on the team. He ended up throwing a touchdown at Sanford Stadium.

Rhett McGowan walked on at a position that ended up being the deepest and best on the team. He ended up a mainstay at receiver and caught one of the team’s key passes this season.

Connor Norman gave up a spot on a Division II team, where he could have been a multiple-year starter and captain, and went to Georgia, never knowing if he’d ever play again. He ended up starting at Georgia and being a captain.

There’s aren’t the only stories. Georgia will honor 28 outgoing seniors before Saturday’s home finale against Kentucky. Eighteen of them joined the team as walk-ons.

It’s not unusual for walk-ons to play here and there, even at an SEC program. The college football roster limit is 125, and the scholarship limit is 85. But for Georgia, what is unusual is the lack of attrition among walk-ons -- the amount who walked on as freshmen and now walk off after four-year careers -- and the amount who seriously contributed. Many have earned scholarships.

Brandon Harton, unrecruited because he was perceived as too short (5-foot-6) for big-time football, ended up playing for three seasons and had a 100-yard rushing day in an SEC game.

Blake Sailors, who grew up a 10-minute drive from Sanford Stadium, was invited to walk on in large part because his good friend was Zach Mettenberger. Five years later, it’s Sailors who has played four years for the Bulldogs and has been a special teams standout.

Hugh Williams, yet another walk-on senior, has been the No. 2 tight end for the past three games.

“There are a lot of walk-ons and guys who stayed the whole time,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. I say it all the time but it’s true, these guys, they love football.”

Welch, who is from Jesup, grew up a Georgia fan and passed on some small-school offers just to get a chance to make the team. He ended up being the No. 3 quarterback for much of the past four years and was Aaron Murray’s top backup last year, because Hutson Mason was redshirting.

When Murray got dinged up at Auburn last year, Welch came in very briefly. Then he came in later in mop-up duty. But his favorite moment was throwing a touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley against Coastal Carolina.

“I’ve made connections I never would have made anywhere else. And I’ve obviously gotten to enjoy one of the best places to play college football,” Welch said. “I got to play some pretty decent playing time in the past two years. I don’t regret my decision at all. I’ve enjoyed it.”

Norman got more than decent playing time after transferring from Presbyterian in 2010. He played in every game these past three seasons, starting four times at safety and staring on special teams. This year, he has 20 tackles and a fumble recovery.

“It’s something that’s obviously gonna stick with me for the rest of my life,” Norman said. “And being here and being part of the program, being part of this tradition is never gonna go away. You’re gonna be able to live it the rest of your life.”

McGowan could have played football or basketball at a small school, but he followed fellow Calhoun native Kris Durham, also a receiver, to Georgia. After sitting out his first year, McGowan caught one pass in 2010, then seven the next year, then 12 last year and goes into Saturday with 12.

The highlight last year was catching a touchdown pass against Georgia Tech. This year it was a third-down catch against Florida on Georgia’s final drive, helping seal the game. McGowan caught Murray’s short out pass then sprinted to the sideline and leaned to get the yardage for a first down.

Maybe if McGowan had gone to a small school, he could have started his entire career and caught 50 passes per year. But the moments he has had at Georgia outweigh that.

“I don’t think that comes close to playing in front of 92,000 every Saturday in Sanford Stadium, and meeting the guys I’ve met here. I can’t imagine not knowing these guys,” he said.

McGowan ended up with a scholarship, as did Norman, Sailors and many others. They benefitted from the attrition Georgia has suffered the past few years, but for the most part, they did more than serve as warm bodies on the roster. They’ve genuinely helped the team, making it a true two-way benefit.

“I’ll always remember it,” Sailors said. “It’ll be cool because I was a four-year letterman here, and it’ll be cool to tell my kids that. It’s a good lesson learned that if you want to go after something, you can go get it, no matter what anybody is gonna tell you or not.”

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