Sulek carries on walk-on tradition
Senior linebacker making most of opportunities, just like other walk-ons under Richt
ATHENS, Ga. -- In the heat of the moment, Jeremy Sulek didn't have time to consider how he was continuing a proud Georgia tradition under coach Mark Richt.
When starting linebacker Alec Ogletree went down with a broken foot early in the Bulldogs' season-opening loss to Boise State, Georgia's coaches turned to Sulek.
Only two years after he didn't even make the team as a walk-on, the senior linebacker from Dacula, Ga., made seven tackles in a marquee game, joining a host of walk-ons who have made an impact under Richt.
Sulek's role diminished somewhat last week against South Carolina. He played mostly in third-down situations as freshman Amarlo Herrera and junior Mike Gilliard grew more comfortable within the defense. But when Robinson suffered a foot injury of his own late in the game, the Bulldogs' thin linebacking corps suffered another crippling blow.
Now, with Ogletree and Robinson out for at least the next two games, Sulek and the Bulldogs' remaining inside linebackers know their coaches are expecting them to shoulder the responsibility.
"Players have got to make plays," Sulek said. "Really that's what they're looking for right now -- knowing the defense and playing fast."
While spending his first year at Georgia as a traditional student, Sulek discovered that he missed playing football. He decided to try out for the team as a sophomore. However, he was cut from the roster as a safety and thought that was the end of his playing career.
After some offseason encouragement from Robinson, whom he knew from high school, Sulek decided to give football one more try.
"He was thinking, 'I'm not gonna play and it'll never happen,' " Robinson recalled. "What happened for me my redshirt freshman year was [Marcus] Dowtin got hurt and for three weeks I got to play. Then by that time, they said I'd earned some reps. Injuries create depth because people get moved around, people get chances and they get opportunities to play. I really think [the Boise State game] showed the coaches that he can contribute and he can play."
Sulek made the team last year, appearing in six games and impressing coaches and teammates with his grasp of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme.
"He knows the defense just as well as I do," said Robinson, who typically made the calls in the defensive huddle. "That was one thing about having him out there. Mentally there was no drop-off. We were able to communicate. We sat next to each other in the meeting room long before [Ogletree] got hurt. It's easy when you have someone out there who knows the signals, knows the calls and can spread it out to everyone else so we can play faster."
It was that understanding of the defense that made the 6-foot-1, 209-pound Sulek the first man off the bench when Ogletree went down, even when some of his teammates might possess greater physical tools.
"People talk about being big. Rennie [Curran] knew what to do when he was here and he was able to play fast," Robinson said of his former teammate, an All-SEC linebacker and NFL draft pick despite being listed at 5-11. "It's really about knowing what's going on and getting in the right position. You can be small, but if you can know where you're supposed to be at the right time and latch onto the running back, you can make a lot of plays."
While nobody will confuse Sulek with a former five-star prospect such as Ogletree, he still managed to hold his own by hustling when thrown into the spotlight against Boise State.
"He knew where to put a Georgia jersey, and he did that and he finished plays with tackles," Georgia inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "If you look at that game, he had some third-down stops where Kellen Moore threw the ball three yards and they needed six and Sulek was the guy that was tackling them. It happened two or three times in the game. He made those completions, and we're off the field now because he knew where he was supposed to be and he made the tackles."
The life of a walk-on comes with little glory. Sometimes it doesn't even include a single live down on Saturdays. But Sulek has earned actual playing time, and he has impressed his position coach with how badly he wants to do his job correctly.
"If he would have given in at any point to the frustration that a walk-on feels, he probably never would have been in that position. He deserves a lot of credit for fighting that fight the entire way," Olivadotti said. "He is a guy that I can look at in my room that I can say, 'Now there's a guy that loves football,' because he's come from nowhere and he's a guy that when everybody else thinks, 'Man, this is so hard,' he takes nothing for granted. He really doesn't.
"Reps in a football game in the SEC are supposed to be special. They're supposed to be cherished and I think he cherished them, and it opens eyes for guys that they need to cherish the reps that they're in for because when you earn them, you earn them. It's a good thing to have, particularly in my room. When you get out on the field, you've earned those reps, and he did a nice job of earning them."
Five UGA walk-ons who made their mark
Tra Battle, safety, 2003-2006
Accomplishments: Came out of nowhere to start in the first game of his college career, the 2003 opener at Clemson, and went on to become a two-year starter and a third-team Associated Press All-American as a senior.
Highlight: Starred in the Bulldogs' surprising 2006 blowout win against fifth-ranked Auburn, intercepting three passes in the first half and returning one for a touchdown.
Billy Bennett, kicker, 2000-2003
Accomplishments: The diminutive Athens native became one of the key offensive weapons in Mark Richt's early days as Georgia's coach. Bennett set numerous school, SEC and national records and still holds the NCAA marks for field goals in a career (87) and in a single season (31).
Highlight: Drilled the game-winning 32-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining to lift Georgia to a 27-25 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The win came only a few days after Georgia alum and former Auburn coach Pat Dye questioned the Bulldogs' manhood and said they weren't "man enough" to defeat the rugged Crimson Tide.
Brandon Coutu, kicker, 2004-2007
Accomplishments: Coutu might have arrived as a walk-on, but he kicked with varsity quality from the start. He took over as the regular place-kicker as a freshman and completed his career as the most accurate kicker in UGA history, both for field goals (80.3 percent) and extra points (100 percent).
Highlight: Helped begin Georgia's ascent toward a seven-game winning streak and a No. 2 final ranking when his 37-yard field goal at the final buzzer helped the Bulldogs escape an upset at Vanderbilt.
Verron Haynes, fullback, 2000-2001
Accomplishments: After starting his career at Western Kentucky, Haynes transferred to Georgia in 2000 and was named overall team captain in 2001, Richt's first season. Haynes was Georgia's leading rusher that year with 691 yards. He went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he won a Super Bowl ring, and Atlanta Falcons.
Highlight: Haynes' career highlight is arguably the top play in Richt's entire 10-plus seasons at Georgia. With time running out, Haynes snuck out of the backfield and caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from David Greene to beat fifth-ranked Tennessee 26-24 and give Richt his first big win as the Bulldogs' coach. Georgia's legendary radio announcer Larry Munson memorialized the moment by famously proclaiming, "We just stepped on their face with a hobnail boot and broke their nose."
J.T. Wall, fullback, 2001-2002
Accomplishments: Wall continued the Bulldogs' run of good fortune with walk-on fullbacks when he transferred from Southwest Baptist University and wound up starting for the 2002 SEC champions. He turned heads with the way he cleared holes for Haynes late in the 2001 season and for Musa Smith in 2002 and was eventually selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round of the 2003 NFL draft.
Highlight: Wall totaled only 312 yards and five touchdowns in his college career, but he never intended to be a ball carrier. Wall was purely a smash-mouth blocking fullback, so his career highlight would be the huge rushing totals posted by Haynes and Smith -- who in 2002 became the Bulldogs' first 1,000-yard rusher in a decade -- while following Wall's blocks.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.