Based purely on percentages, Georgia redshirt freshman Kosta Vavlas was perhaps the Bulldogs’ most productive player in last Saturday’s Southeastern Conference victory at Tennessee.
A participant on several of Georgia’s special teams, the 6-foot, 219-pound walk-on took to the field for five kickoffs and four punts against the Volunteers and came away with a career-best four tackles.
“Kosta has really come in and done a great job for us,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He did get four tackles on special teams, which is hard to do in just one game. If we had defensive guys that had that tackle-per-play ratio, that would be pretty astronomical.”
The Tarpon Springs, Fla., native — whom assistant coach John Lilly said has only been on the punt team for the last few games — has impressive speed and an uncanny ability to evade obstructions to ball carriers. After a redshirt season spent on the scout team, Vavlas has played in all six games and has nine tackles to his credit.
“The key is to run as fast as you can,” Vavlas said. “The faster we run, the quicker and further we get down there and the harder it is to block us. It’s all the players doing their job.”
Richt said Vavlas’ speed is indeed an asset, but an awareness of his surroundings and a gritty on-field demeanor also contribute to his success.
“He runs hard and avoids the blocks, as he’s taught to do,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) play at 7 p.m. today at Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2). “He’s very disciplined in how he goes about his business. He’s been a real sure tackler, and a lot of that is you’ve got to have athletic ability and strength, but you’ve really got to want to do the job and really have some nerve. You’re flying down the field and you don’t have any idea who’s going to try to knock you sideways. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel a little bit. And if you hesitate, you won’t make a play.”
“He’s probably a lot faster than a lot of people give him credit for,” added Lilly, who oversees the punt-coverage team. “He also has an understanding, not only of what we’re doing, but of what people are trying to do to him. And the guy loves to play and he plays hard. Those two things, more than anything else, are what allow him to succeed.”
Vavlas’ recent play has certainly caught the attention of his coaches, who this week named him a team captain for today’s game, alongside seniors Ben Jones, Cordy Glenn and Brandon Boykin.
“To God all be the glory,” Vavlas said. “He got me out there, he’s kept me healthy and strong, and all the other guys did their jobs, so I was able to make a few tackles here and there. I’m just honored the coaching staff selected me for this.”
Richt said that since punt-return teams often focus on fellow gunner Blake Sailors, Vavlas has been able to take advantage of the situation.
“I think … that Blake Sailors has kind of been the marked man on our special teams, because a year ago he was making all the tackles as the first guy down there,” Richt said. “Now that’s freed up some opportunities for other guys, and Kosta is one of those guys who have done a great job.”
“He’s about 220 (pounds), but he’s actually very fast — he can really run,” added Sailors. “He brings a physicality to the game and he can go out and blow up a wedge. I can’t blow up a wedge because I’m not as big, so I try to weave around it, but he can just go right through it, which is fantastic.”
Vavlas is roundly praised by teammates as someone who happily comes to work every day, and the redshirt freshman — whose brother Bobby is a wide receiver at Elmhurst (Ill.) College — says his positive outlook has been framed by his mother Nomiki, who more than a decade ago was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“She doesn’t let anything stop her,” Vavlas said. “Anytime I’m able to get home, she’s like ‘All right, do you want to do the MS walk?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, let’s go do it.’ She might be the last one to finish, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She has been my inspiration.
“Even after all she’s been through, she never let her disease or anything else stop her. She’s always so positive — she never complains. So if I have a bad day, I’ll stop and say, ‘What am I complaining about? I don’t have anything to complain about.’ She’s been through so much more than I’ll ever experience. She’s just the best.”