Walk-ons make splash at Fullback

Jeremy Thomas

ATHENS -- One of the most long-standing traditions in college football is Texas A&M's 12th Man, a walk-on who each year earns a spot on the Aggies' kick coverage team and wears No. 12.

Georgia seems to be developing a similar system with its fullbacks, but there's one big difference, says Ken Rucker, Georgia's running backs coach who was at Texas A&M for five seasons.

For the Aggies, it's tradition. For the Bulldogs, it's necessity.

"The need is just so great," Rucker said.

Fullbacks are often overlooked on the field, and they seem to go similarly under appreciated come recruiting season, but No. 9 Georgia has found a more-than-adequate system for filling the void. Starter Jeremy Thomas is the third player in as many years to walk-on, serve his time on the scout team and then earn a scholarship and start.

The last two, Verron Haynes and Milledgeville's J.T. Wall took it one step further by being drafted in the NFL.

"I think it's a good walk-on position, one reason is I don't think you have to be super athletic to play it," Thomas said. "We've got some fast guys, but it's not like you have to be a low-something guy in the 40 and be the strongest guy on the team or the quickest. You just have to be a tough guy, go in there every play and give it all you've got."

Wall isn't the only Middle Georgia product to take advantage of Georgia's system. Forsyth's Jamario Smith walked on at Georgia after spending one year at Gordon College in Barnesville and now backs up Thomas. Hunter O'Brien and Antowin Clowers of First Presbyterian Day have also tried to crack the rotation in the last two years.

"They came it saying the same thing," Smith said. "We wanted to be like J.T. and Verron.

Thomas, a junior from Loganville, has 11 carries for 34 yards and six catches for 97 yards. The Air Force Academy leads the Bulldogs in yards per catch among players with more than one reception and is coming off his best game of the season, a bruising performance against Florida.

"I didn't know anything about the tradition, but I found out when I got here," he said. "It gave me a little inspiration seeing (Wall and Haynes)."

Thomas has missed two games this season due to a concussion, illustrating the drawbacks of the position.

"You have to look at every block as a personal battle between you and the defender and really take it serious because you are throwing your body in there every play," he said. "It's not like you're running in their making a cut and dodging a guy. You're running full speed into a guy every play."

Rucker calls fullback a throwback position, which is one of the reasons it's a good fit for players whose attitude outweighs their athleticism.

"It's a position for a player who comes in and shows you he's just dedicated to hitting," Smith said. "I just see the position as a football position. Anybody who will give his all for the team can play it."

Richt said the position is often a good fit for "high school linebackers who may not be quite as fast as you want at this level." Thomas and Smith were both on the scout team defense when they arrived at Georgia and caught the coaches' eye with their willingness to hit somebody.

"There are a lot of guys who can fit that position," Richt said. "You don't have to be super fast, but you have to be tough."

If Georgia's coaches have their way, the mini-tradition will end soon. Earlier this season, they moved scholarship linebacker Des Williams to fullback, and Rockmart's Danny Ware, who signed last year but failed to qualify has made the required test scores and plans to be at Georgia next year to join the competition for the job.

Until then, Thomas will keep earning his college education by throwing his body into linebacker after linebacker, and Smith and the rest will keep trying to be the next in line.

"It gives them hope for the opportunity to play a part," Rucker said.

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