Walk-ons keep a Georgia tradition alive and well

Updated: October 23, 2003, 8:09 PM ET
ESPN

ATHENS, Ga. -- Jeremy Thomas and Jamario Smith knew what they were walking into at Georgia.

The Bulldogs' last two starting fullbacks enrolled in school on their own dime, played well enough to earn scholarships and went on to get picked in the NFL draft.

Now, it's Thomas and Smith who are carrying on what is rapidly becoming a proud Georgia tradition: the walk-on fullback.

"You've got to fight a lot of battles," Thomas said. "It's good to see guys who aren't that hyped be able to come in and make a place for themselves. It should be inspirational to everybody who has heard someone say they can't do something."

Verron Haynes and J.T. Wall heard plenty of skepticism when they arrived at Georgia.

But they played well enough to earn scholarships, break into the starting lineup and draw the attention of the NFL. Both were drafted ahead of more highly publicized teammates.

Thomas and Smith hope to keep that tradition alive, as well.

"We talk about that a lot," Smith said. "We talk every day about where we're going with our lives."

Thomas is a bowling ball of a player, packing 238 pounds into his 5-foot-11 frame. Smith is from a similar mold -- just 5-10 but weighing 210 pounds.

"It's not a glamour position," coach Mark Richt said. "You don't have to be super-fast, but you've got to be tough and you've got to be physical."

At Georgia, the fullback doesn't get a whole lot of chances to touch the ball. He's a blocker first, helping to protect quarterback David Greene and open up holes for the tailbacks.

Thomas has six carries for 20 yards and six receptions for 97 yards. Smith has rushed seven times for 31 yards and made two catches for 19 yards.

"It's pretty cut and dry," Thomas said. "You've got to block the guy in front of you. Maybe you get to catch a pass once in a while, get a little smell of it."

Thomas and Smith got to Georgia in similar roundabout fashion. While both are natives of the state, they headed off to the military after high school.

Thomas signed with Air Force, the only Division I-A school to offer a scholarship. Smith enrolled at the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island, hoping to eventually play for the Midshipmen.

Smith, who had surgery on both ankles after high school, figured his football career was winding down when he chose the military route.

"I love to play football, but I was thinking about my life as a whole," Smith said. "I thought about all the benefits I would get if I went into the military."

Thomas quickly realized he was out of place at Air Force. He lasted through boot camp and one semester of classes before deciding to transfer back home.

"I figured I could do the military thing. I'm a pretty disciplined guy," Thomas said. "But you've got to love it. It's got to be your life."

Smith had a change of attitude when his ankles began to improve after surgery. He, too, headed home to play for the Bulldogs, even though no scholarships were available.

"Everybody who walks on dreams of playing," Greene said. "But you've got to have enough confidence to get it done. They came in and showed what they could do."

Thomas was a linebacker at Loganville High School, while Smith played linebacker his first season at Georgia. Richt often looks to that side of the line when he's searching for potential fullbacks.

"A lot of linebackers are not that quick and not that fast," the coach said. "But they want to play, they're tough, and they're smart."

Thomas received a scholarship over the summer as a precursor to his first season as s starter.

"It feels good when I go to class to know it's paid in full," the junior said. "That was one of the best calls I ever got."

A concussion will likely keep Thomas from playing Saturday when the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (6-1) host UAB (3-4). That could give Smith his first college start.

The sophomore has yet to get a scholarship; he'll likely will have to wait until after the season for one to open up. In the meantime, Smith will relish his chance to play.

So will Thomas.

"I think we appreciate it," he said, "a little more than some guys."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index