Walk-ons make most of chances
ATHENS, Ga. -- When the spotlight found Ricky Lowe, the defensive end clearly felt out of place.
He had just rumbled 62 yards with a recovered fumble for what would be the game-winning touchdown in Georgia's spring game. But instead of a demonstrative touchdown celebration, he turned around as if he was unsure it had just happened, before Reuben Faloughi -- who forced the fumble -- greeted him in the end zone.
If Lowe was uncomfortable in such a situation, he had good reason. The senior walk-on has never appeared in an actual game for the Bulldogs. He fully understands that a walk-on's role is typically not to make plays on Saturdays, it's to make sure that his high-profile teammates are prepared to make those plays that end up on "SportsCenter."
"I just try to focus every day on what I can control, and that's if they put me in in a play, I try to show up as much as I can," Lowe said. "If they put me on scout team, which they will, I just have to go out there and work hard. That's what I signed up for. Being a walk-on, you're not signing up for glory or anything like that."
Brandon Harton didn't sign up for glory, but he reveled in it briefly last fall. The 5-foot-6 running back was not even invited to Georgia as a preferred walk-on, meaning he had to survive tryouts to even become a member of the Bulldogs' scout team. But he not only secured a spot on the team, he eventually earned a scholarship.
Even Harton was surprised, however, when injuries and disciplinary issues among the tailbacks left him as one of Georgia's top backfield options late last season. He rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs' win against New Mexico State, and he added a career-high 101 yards two weeks later against Kentucky in a win that secured the SEC East championship.
"You have fantasies or dreams or whatever. Sometimes I can just imagine stuff in my head happening but never really think it will happen in real life," Harton said. "To actually do it, I can look back on it and say, 'Wow, that was really great. That was an awesome experience to go through.' I'm just glad that the team won and we went to the SEC championship afterwards."
Harton and special teams ace Blake Sailors were among seven walk-ons who were awarded scholarships two weeks ago. Harton and Sailors had their scholarships renewed after first receiving them a year ago, while fullback Merritt Hall, receiver Rhett McGowan, safety Connor Norman, linebacker Kosta Vavlas and cornerback Luis Capella were first-time recipients.
All of those players figure into Georgia's plans on scrimmage and special teams downs, but there are dozens of walk-ons who will never see the field -- some of whom won't even dress out for games on Saturdays. They join the team simply because they want to be Georgia football players, knowing they can best help the Bulldogs by simulating upcoming opponents during practice on the scout team.
"For a walk-on, you really have to love the game because you go through a lot," Sailors said. "For me, I just loved the game of football so much and I loved going out there to compete and love Saturdays between the hedges. A lot of guys don't get to experience that so they're playing to say I play for Georgia, I can say I played with some of the best guys and to have the whole team atmosphere and team thing together. That's pretty big, too."
As a redshirting freshman in 2008, senior linebacker Christian Robinson got a small taste of life as a walk-on. He was on scholarship, which was an obvious difference, but he worked alongside the walk-ons on the scout team and better understood their plight.
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"I was out there with guys I'd grown up watching, so it was fun. I enjoyed it," Robinson said. "A lot of guys have a negative attitude, 'Oh, I don't want to be down here,' but I got to play football when a lot of guys didn't get to play and are sitting on the sidelines in practice. I got to play against Stafford. I'll tell everybody that."
During preseason camp, Lowe explained to the young walk-ons how their commitment to Georgia football impacts the team. During a "Senior Hot Seat" speech, he told them that juggling football, academics and often a job to help pay their way through school can be demanding, so they have to play for reasons other than those that motivate scholarship players.
"We have to talk about what the 'G' means to us and what I was trying to say to all of the walk-ons -- because there's, like, a million walk-ons this year -- is that the 'G' has to mean more to them because we're not going to get any glory," Lowe said.
If it seems like a thankless situation, in many ways it is. But Lowe knows that what walk-ons bring to the team is invaluable -- and he believes the Bulldogs' scholarship players value their contributions.
"I think they have a general idea of what we have to sacrifice to be here," Lowe said. "All of us could be doing something else, but we're sacrificing our time to try to make the team better. And that's all I care about."
Count Robinson among the scholarship recipients who understand.
"Those guys mean a lot to us. If they don't give us a good look in practice, everything can go downhill," he said. "Coach [Todd] Grantham and Coach [Mike] Bobo give those guys a hard time when they don't do what they're supposed to do, so those guys are essential to our success."