Teammates have faith in McGowan

This time four years ago, Rhett McGowan was at a bit of a crossroads.

A senior at Calhoun High School, McGowan earned all-state laurels as a wide receiver and defensive back of a Yellow Jackets football team that went 12-3 and played for the Class AA state championship. He also played point guard and averaged 22 points a game in his final season of high school basketball.

Thus was McGowan’s dilemma — which sport to pursue at the next level?

“I love both basketball and football,” said the 6-foot, 190-pound junior, now playing split end at Georgia. “Back then, I was thinking basketball and I told my coach in high school that’s what I wanted to do, so he started sending out my tape. I thought that was where I’d end up. I’m glad I made the decision to come here and play football.”

So instead of shooting jumpers in a gym in anticipation of a possible midnight madness promotion somewhere, the former walk-on and scout team member has moved into the spotlight of big-time college football when he assumes the punt-return responsibilities for the No. 5 Bulldogs, who face No. 6 South Carolina at 7 p.m. today in a Southeastern Conference scrap that could go a long way toward determining the East Division’s champion.

McGowan had been sharing return duties for Georgia (5-0, 3-0) with sophomore Malcolm Mitchell for the last several games — and had even returned a punt 23 yards against Florida Atlantic and another one for 19 yards against Vanderbilt. But Mitchell’s bad luck in the Tennessee game led Bulldogs coach Mark Richt to make a change for the Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0).

“Rhett will start out as our punt-return man in all situations,” said Richt on Tuesday. “He was kind of our mid-field punt (man), if the punt was somewhere around midfield. He’d be the guy who dug in his heels at the 10-yard mark and decided whether to catch it, fair catch it or let it go over his head. He’s got some reps doing that and he’s had a couple of reps around midfield, and we’re allowing him to be the primary punt return man in this came and we’ll see how it goes.”

An experienced punt returner in high school who returned a few kicks a year ago, McGowan kept wise counsel as the South Carolina game approached.

“I’m hoping I get a chance and (the coaches are) confident in both of us, so we’re both getting reps,” McGowan said. “I’m preparing to be the first guy back there and I hope I am. I’m confident and I’m excited, but if Malcolm’s back there, I’m just as excited for him.”

For his part, Mitchell — who has excelled this season as a defensive back and receiver — expressed a similar point of view.

“The best person for the job gets it,” said Mitchell. “I’ve had some mistakes this year and if that’s the cause for (McGowan) to go in, he goes in and I support him all the way. I’ll be on the sidelines cheering him on, hoping he’ll run one back.”

McGowan also has the confidence of his fellow receivers, including Michael Bennett and Tavarres King.

“Rhett is very reliable back there,” said Bennett. “He’s not going to make a lot of mistakes, and he can make people miss. He’s pretty quick, too, so it’s good to have him back there.”

“I’ve got full faith in Rhett McGowan,” said King with a wide smile. “I can remember watching him (return punts) in high school and he takes pride in his work. Even when he wasn’t back there to begin with, he’s always said, ‘I can do that. If they need somebody to catch the ball, I can do it.’ It’s amazing he’s finally getting that call. I’m excited for him. He’s going to do well there.”

The sports management major has had the good fortune to work with a host of excellent receivers — including King, Bennett, Mitchell, A.J. Green and fellow Calhoun native Kris Durham — during his time in Athens.

“Learning from the best receivers has helped me more than anything,” said McGowan, who in his career as a receiver has 10 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. “Watching them go to work every day and seeing what they do has pushed me to know how hard I have to work to get on the field., The entire receiving corps has been working hard and I think everybody can see that it’s paying off.”

His season was made well before the first game when after three years as a walk-on, he was granted a scholarship in August.

“As a walk-on, my goal was to get on the field and help the team,” he said. “When they awarded me a scholarship, it was an unbelievable feeling, the best feeling I’ve had in a while. And it’s just a bonus. It doesn’t affect the way I play now because I still go out there every day and compete like I don’t have a scholarship. But more than anything, the best thing was being able to call my mom and tell her I had a scholarship and she didn’t have to worry about me financially anymore. It was a great feeling because my mom has always been there for me and it’s a struggle to pay for school here. That was the best feeling.”

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