ATHENS - Connor Norman is the first-team strong safety for the Georgia football team. All that money, time and research that goes into recruiting, and the man slated to start at strong safety in the season opener is a guy who five years ago just walked in off the street.
There are some mitigating circumstances: Josh Harvey-Clemons would be the first-team strong safety, but he's suspended one game. Corey Moore has been injured and is basically ruled out for the game. Shaquille Fluker, a junior college transfer who's new to the team, is back healthy but missed a bunch of valuable preseason practice time with a couple injuries.
So once again it falls to Norman, who started the first two games last year with two other members of the secondary on suspension. This causes a good bit of consternation from fans, expressing themselves on Twitter and the message boards, who don't like the idea of a walk-on continuing to play over highly-recruited scholarship players, who presumably have more skills, but don't know the defensive system the way Norman does.
Norman was asked whether he resents or embraces the idea that he's playing because he's been around awhile and knows the system and can communicate.
"I definitely embrace it. It's a huge honor to be out on the field and play for Georgia, so I'm very excited about it," Norman said.
Yeah, but what about his football abilities?
"I guess we're just gonna have to wait for the game," he said, smiling. "People talk, but I'm excited to be out there."
Norman claims he doesn't hear about the doubters on the Internet. It's left to others to defend him.
Malcolm Mitchell has gone against Norman in practice the past few years as a receiver, and last year at Missouri started at cornerback with Norman at safety.
"He's out there because he knows what he's doing," Mitchell said. "There's other players here at Georgia. So it's hard for me to understand the thought process of the fans. It's not like he's the only safety that's here. Obviously he's earned a spot, he's been proving himself to the coaches."
Norman made 10 tackles in his two starts last year, including six at Missouri. He's also been one of the team's top special teams players. So Mitchell agrees that preconceived notions figures into the fan perception on Norman.
"It's bad to say it that way. But if he wasn't a white guy (not) on scholarship, how worried would they be?" Mitchell said.
Head coach Mark Richt compared Norman to Christian Robinson, a senior last year who is now a graduate assistant. Robinson, who was on scholarship, was renowned for his football smarts and on-field coaching ability.
"Half the battle for safeties, especially when you’re trying to tackle people, is being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there," Richt said. "If you’re late getting down into the box, the farther you are away from the back, which creates space. Space is the enemy of anyone trying to make a tackle. If you get where you’re supposed to be, the guy doesn’t have as much room to maneuver on you and that helps you make the tackle or make the play. Connor is just one of those guys that has that advantage, and he really has it based upon all of the knowledge that he has.”
Norman wears No. 11, the number he was issued when he first walked on. It's become a running joke between him and Aaron Murray, and fans often mistake him for the star quarterback.
"I try to ignore it, because you don't want to play along with it. So I keep walking," he said. "But it's funny."
It also means that Norman and Murray can never be on the field together. Sorry, everyone who was dreaming of special offensive packages for Norman, or using Murray at safety.
Norman spent his first year of college at Presbyterian, where he was on scholarship. But he left there to come to Georgia, without any invitation, to try his shot here. It's worked out, but he said he still rarely gets recognized around campus or town as a member of the fifth-ranked football team. Much less a starter.
"I'm just a regular guy, man," he said. "I'm out here playing football. It's not something that I boast about or advertise about, and I am humble about it, and I'm very blessed for the opportunity I've been given."