Note: A version of this story ran in print over the weekend. . . .
ATHENS – When he arrived at Georgia, Connor Norman was just another obscure walkon buried on a roster of 125 players. But that’s not the case anymore.
Norman was one of seven walkons recently awarded grants-in-aid by the Bulldogs’ coaching staff. Not coincidentally, he’s not buried on the depth chart anymore either.
In fact, Norman is among the exclusive group of Georgia players pretty much guaranteed to play in every game. Norman laughed when asked if his new-found scholarship-status had raised his profile around campus.
“No, nothing really has changed,” said Norman, a redshirt sophomore from Duluth. “I have all my same friends and everything’s the same. I got free books [last week] and that was nice. It was weird going in there and just walking out with books.”
Norman – or more accurately, his parents – had been writing checks for books the past two years while he toiled on the Bulldogs’ scout team and special teams. But that won’t be the case this season as the 5-foot-10, 208-pounder figures into Georgia’s plans.
Norman is currently second-team free safety for the Bulldogs and is expected to see action on at least three of their special teams units. Attrition and depth problems created the opportunity for Norman to earn such significant role on the team. But it’s Norman’s athletic ability that is keeping him there, according to those who know him best.
“I’m not a bit surprised they gave him a scholarship,” said Bill Ballard, who coached Norman at Peachtree Ridge High School. “I’m surprised he didn’t get one before now. His [measurables] were every bit as good as Thomas Brown’s, and I coached both of them.”
Ballard coached Brown, a former Georgia tailback, at Tucker High School. Ballard is now at White County High.
“Very similar size, similar body build, both of them real strong, consummate weight-room guys,” he said of Norman and Brown. “And Connor is just as fast. I tried like crazy to get Division I schools to recruit him. I couldn’t even get I-AA schools to offer him. They wouldn’t do it.”
Norman finally ended up with scholarship offers from Presbyterian and Gardner-Webb. He took the offer from the Blue Hose and spent one season at the FCS school before deciding to come back home and go to school at UGA.
“I transferred to Georgia on my own; I didn’t talk to anybody,” Norman said.” Part of me didn’t even plan on playing football. I just felt like I didn’t fit in at Presbyterian and wanted something different. I just wanted to come here and go to school. Once I got here I just decided to give the walk-on thing a shot.”
Norman had to sit out the 2010 season as per NCAA transfer rules, so he paid his dues on the Bulldogs’ scout team. He started making plays against the No. 1 offense in practice and fairly quickly caught the eye of Georgia’s coaches.
“You evaluate every player when they first come here and he was a guy who always showed up in the right spot,” Grantham recalled. “His first scrimmage last year, he went with the first group and the second group because we had some injuries. So he literally had to play 80 to 90 plays. He played every one of them. The kid hustles, he’s smart, he knows what to do and he’s dependable.”
By the spring of 2011 Norman was getting snaps as a backup defensive back and earned a spot on special teams.
“Early on Coach Grantham didn’t know his name,” said linebacker Christian Robinson, one of Norman’s good friends. “He used to call him ‘Conrad Newman.’ Slowly Coach Grantham has learned his name and now he’s earned a scholarship so, yeah, I’d say he has some talent.”
Norman played in all 14 games last season and led the Bulldogs in special teams tackles with 14. But his play wasn’t limited only to kicking teams. In fact, because of free safety’s suspension for the first game last season, he played in the defensive backfield against Boise State.
Norman currently listed as the first free safety behind Rambo, who’s availability is in question again this season. Georgia has yet to make an announcement regarding Rambo’s status or how many games he might be out due to suspension. Suffice it to say Norman is expected to play on defense this fall.
“He’s earned it,” Grantham said. “He can run. He’s got some quickness and some strength and some instincts. He’s smart and he knows the system, so he’s usually where he needs to be. Therefore he’s able to make some plays.”
Said Georgia secondary coach Scott Lakatos: “He’s one of those guys you want to see people write about. He got here the summer of my first year here and he’s done nothing but work and learn and be a positive guy and continue to get better. When he’s had his opportunities to make some plays, he’s made some. He’s put himself in position to where he had a role on this team and obviously we’re excited about him getting a chance to get a scholarship.”
Locking down a grant-in-aid means Norman has achieved one of his personal goals. Now he wants to concentrate on helping the Bulldogs meet their team goals.
“I just want to help the team out anyway I can,” he said. “If that’s me playing on the field a certain number of plays or not doesn’t matter. I honestly came to Georgia just to have a role on the team. Now that I have somewhat of a role, I just want to play it to the best of my ability.”
If Norman does happen to get some meaningful snaps on defense this fall, Ballard said it doesn’t think it means the Bulldogs are in trouble. He believes Norman can get the job done.
“We put Connor on Brice Butler when he was at Norcross, before he went to USC, and he held him to two catches and 12 yards for the game,” Ballard said. “He was biting his ankles, but he shut him down. . . . He’s got the speed. I watched him run a 4.3-sometiung in high school on a timing advice. He’s not like a Rudy or anything like that. He’s a very talented athlete.”