In fact, there was only one name and status that caught anybody off guard – fullback Merritt Hall listed as a starter.
For a walk-on who came to Georgia without the luxury of a scholarship, Hall’s ascension from scout team practice dummy to one of 11 starters on offense is the best-case model for his peers to follow.
“The coaches have given me an opportunity, and I’m trying to take advantage of it,” Hall, a redshirt freshman from Alpharetta, said.
Hall has earned respect and trust from coaches and players alike, which for a walk-on is the first step in earning the “opportunity” Hall continuously gushes about when speaking to the media.
“The opportunities don’t come easy,” Hall said. “Whether you’re a walk-on or on scholarship, you’ve got to work hard for opportunities.”
As you can see, opportunity is the word for Hall and, as you probably guessed, most players who “walk on to” the team.
College football programs can add up to 85 scholarship players on the roster for a given season. But well over 100 athletes practice with the team, with the surplus players functioning as a regular member while paying their way through school. Most don’t dress out for games on Saturdays, much less have the chance to see the field.
The Bulldogs have over 40 walk-ons, most of whom have names nobody has ever heard. Taking a closer look at the depth chart, only Hall and defensive back Connor Norman appear on the two-deep (starters and backups). Former walk-on Ty Frix is the starter at longsnapper, having earned a scholarship prior to the 2011 season.
For guys like Norman, who left a free ride to Presbyterian to transfer to Georgia, the hope is to be rewarded should there be any leftover scholarships due to attrition. Listening to him speak, however, you’d never know it.
“I don’t talk about that,” he said. “I don’t talk to anybody about it. I’m honestly happy here regardless. I didn’t come here to Georgia to earn a scholarship. I’m not saying that’s not a goal, but the opportunity I have right now – I’m just really happy with that.”
There’s the o-word again. And while there’s more than three ways to end up a walk-on at Georgia, here’s a look at how the opportunity started for some.
Hall was a decorated athlete at Wesleyan, playing three sports and excelling at football. He and teammates Kyle Karempelis (who is also a walk-on at Georgia) and David Andrews (the Bulldogs’ starting center) helped lead the Wolves to a state title in 2008. Hall was named to numerous All-State teams as a linebacker his senior season.
“All through high school I was trying to work to try to get better and work my way up to getting to that level that I needed to be to play in college,” Hall said.
He and Karempelis starred at running back, with college coaches taking notice while on hand to recruit the much-heralded Andrews. Georgia Southern and Jacksonville State told Hall they had room for him as a walk-on. A few other schools talked about a potential scholarship.
“I think Air Force was going to offer me,” he said.
Near the end of his senior year, Hall made a bold move. He called Stacey Searels, then the offensive line coach who recruited Andrews to Georgia, and plainly asked if there was any room for a fullback/linebacker type to walk on.
“He said he’d be back in touch with me,” Hall remembers. “I sent him my film, and I think it was like two or three months later they said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to give you a preferred walk-on.’ “
So Hall bypassed a chance to play at smaller schools – which meant giving up a good chance for solid playing time and potentially a starting position - to enter into an unknown and much bigger arena.
“It was stressful, but I wanted to test myself,” he said. “I believed in myself and thought I belonged here and that I could compete with these guys.”
Quick distinction – a preferred walk-on is guaranteed to make the team and practice as a freshman. A “regular” walk-on must try out and could potentially be cut.
While Hall was rewarded for taking matters into his own hands, Norman’s route to Georgia took an extra turn or two.
A standout at Peachtree Ridge High, Norman helped the team win three straight region championships, a state title and was named first-team All-Gwinnett County in 2008. But he was passed over by Georgia and other major colleges due to his size (now 5-foot-10, 208 pounds).
He opted for Presbyterian College, in Clinton, S.C., with a full scholarship.
As a freshman Norman started five games -- a quick start to what looked like a promising career. Despite being a main contributor still with upside, he wanted to chase his ultimate goal and prove he could compete at the highest level. So he headed to Georgia in 2010 without the guarantee of a scholarship, and got to work.
“I remember last spring he made a bunch of big plays,” coach Mark Richt said. “He’s a tough kid.”
Two seasons later and Norman is considered a vocal leader and a prime backup at safety (with the ability to play corner if necessary). He’s positioned himself to earn a scholarship, especially considering Georgia is currently well below the 85 limit.
“Obviously that’s a goal and that would be something great for my parents because I did leave a scholarship at Presbyterian,” he said. “But it’s not something that I’m getting my hopes up for. It is every walk-ons hope to get a scholarship though.”
Norman proved himself at a lower level, which led to confidence established before heading to Georgia.
In drastic contrast, wide receiver Rhett McGowan thought he was destined to play basketball in college. A two-sport standout at famed football-centered Calhoun High, McGowan initially saw himself playing on the hardwood after high school due to a lack of serious interest from major football programs. A few smaller schools discussed scholarships with McGowan, but it wasn’t until Georgia offered a preferred walk-on spot that a change of plans was made.
“Just getting the opportunity to get here and show them what I could do was an opportunity I wanted,” he said.
Ah, yes – opportunity. And that’s exactly what McGowan was given last October against the rival Florida Gators. Due to injuries at the position, McGowan was inserted into the game in the first half, eventually hauling in one pass for 11 yards.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I was pretty nervous, and after a play it kind of calmed down. In the second half I started rolling a little more.”
As shown, there are many ways for a walk-on to create a place on the roster. And the contributions are equally as diverse, from practicing every day, to catching a pass, backing up a starter or waiting for that one big hit on special teams that will be remembered for years to come.
That’s what Florida native Kosta Vavlas relishes. A walk-on who has earned praise for his abilities on kickoff coverage, Vavlas’ motivation isn’t to one day earn a scholarship – it’s about the greater good for the team.
“It doesn't matter if it's special teams or holding kicks -- I don't really do that, but wherever they need me is where I'm going to fill,” he said. I'm not going to think yes or no. I say yes sir and go. If that's the way to get on the field that's what I'm going to do.”
Although the odds aren’t in a walk-on’s favor, sometimes the bet and hard work pays off. Kickers, especially, have had success making the move, most notably Billy Bennett and Brandon Coutu. There have been cases of “every-down” types making waves too: running back Verron Haynes, safety Tra Battle and fullback J.T. Wall to name a few.
And the current team has its share of former walk-ons that earned a scholarship and have made contributions: Frix, tailback Brandon Harton, linebacker Reuben Faloughi, cornerback Blake Sailors.
For any walk-on, a single opportunity is all that can be asked. And sometimes all that is needed.
“I didn't come here to be a five-year walk-on and scout team player,” McGowan said. “That was not my goal. I came here because I thought I could help the team one day.”