Rhett McGowan’s first collegiate reception might have gone a bit under the radar, but his second catch sure didn’t.
A redshirt sophomore walk-on, McGowan grabbed an 11-yard pass from Aaron Murray in No. 18 Georgia’s 24-20 victory over Florida last Saturday that kept a critical third-quarter drive alive, although the Bulldogs were unable to score on the possession.
Despite Georgia’s inability to put points on the board at the end of the drive, McGowan’s catch represented a turning-point moment in the Calhoun native’s career.
“It was an unbelievable opportunity,” said McGowan, whose first catch — a 12-yarder — came last year in Georgia’s 55-7 win over Idaho State. “I was excited to get the chance to go in. I’ve been waiting a long time and finally I got that chance. The best part was getting the win and the feeling after that game. It’s the best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Murray, who completed 15 of 34 passes to six different receivers for 169 yards against Florida, said he was obviously pleased to connect with McGowan to extend the possession, but he was also pulling for the seldom-used receiver to make a play.
“I was excited for him,” Murray said. “That morning, we were sitting around watching some film after breakfast and we were talking about the defense. He said he just wanted to get in there, and I said, ‘If you get in there, be ready.’
“He got in there, I saw press on both sides, both mirrored routes, so I decided to throw to Rhett. … He was able to get open and I was pumped and I knew everyone on the sidelines and everyone on the field was pumped. It was probably a great feeling for him and it was a big play because we converted for a first down.”
Freshman receiver Chris Conley, who had three catches for 38 yards — including a big fourth-quarter reception that helped seal the victory over Florida — said he was pleased to see McGowan’s catch and he wasn’t the least bit reserved about it.
“It wasn’t quiet,” Conley said. “It was a big celebration. Everybody was going wild, jumping off the bench on the sidelines and running around. We always celebrate each other and that was a celebratory moment.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt said McGowan’s ability to get into open space has been a key to his development.
“Rhett has been practicing well for a long time,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs (6-2) host New Mexico State (3-5) at 12:30 p.m. today. “He’s really one of the better guys we have in man coverage, press coverage. He has a knack for getting some separation.
“He’s not a burner, but getting off the jam is at least half the battle with guys coming up and pressing you. He’s had a knack for doing that all throughout his career here, so we felt comfortable enough to get him in the game and throw the ball to him. He separated well, he caught the ball and he secured it immediately.”
While in high school, McGowan had plans to be a college athlete, but being on the football team at Georgia isn’t quite what he envisioned.
A point guard at Calhoun High, McGowan figured his chance to continue playing in college would come in basketball. But when he was invited to Athens as a preferred walk-on, he climbed aboard.
“I was offered a preferred walk-on,” said the 6-foot, 190-pound McGowan, who has also played this year in the Coastal Carolina and Ole Miss games. “I wouldn’t have come here just for school. I would have gone somewhere smaller and played basketball or football. I had some offers from smaller schools. But this is where you want to play football. I’d still want to be here, no matter who offered me.
“When I came here, I came here to get that chance to play. I don’t want to be satisfied with just being on the team. I got that chance and hopefully I’ll get some more. That was my ultimate goal coming here, to help this team win offensively and actually help them on the field.”
In terms of role models, McGowan couldn’t have picked a better one than his old friend from Calhoun — former Bulldogs receiver Kris Durham, now a member of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
“Kris and I grew up together,” McGowan said. “We went to same babysitter when I was 2 years old. We’re close, and he called me right after the game to congratulate me. We’ve had a lot of people from Calhoun come here. … I’ve always looked up to Chris. He’s always been like a big brother to me.
“(Growing up), I was a Notre Dame fan. I don’t know why, but that’s who I rooted for ever since I was little. I kept up with Georgia more when Kris got here just to see how he was doing. I always rooted for him.”