Can Georgia's New Linebacker Stop Alabama in its Tracks?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s Georgia’s not-so-secret weapon against Alabama’s new star quarterback.
By Ray Glier
Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa unveiled his wondrous passing ability in college football’s national championship game on Jan. 8, ruining the Georgia Bulldogs’ title hopes. Season after season, the Crimson Tide is a formidable threat, combining one of the country’s best defenses with a stout running game to win five national championships in the past nine years. And now, with Tagovailoa bringing a top-shelf passing game, it could be that everyone just stays home and watches from the couch as Alabama collects more titles.
But the Bulldogs are about to unveil their own prodigy, a counterpunch to Alabama’s quarterback or any of the other quarterback slingers in the Southeastern Conference. When spring practice concludes around the SEC in April, Tagovailoa may look a little less intimidating because, sooner or later, he will have to deal with Walter Grant.
Grant, a rising sophomore, is going to be Georgia’s marauder off the edge of the defense, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound linebacker whose primary duty will be to pressure the quarterback into poor throws, or tackle him to the ground. Grant can run a 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds and his height/weight/speed matrix already fits the measurables for an outside NFL linebacker.
I grew up with it just being about football, not all the lights and noise and things, so I kept that in my head and got to work.
So when the rallying cry is heard around the SEC to “Get Tua,” Grant is just the player to do the getting.
“Walter is a natural football player,” says Davin Bellamy, a starting linebacker on Georgia’s SEC 2017 championship team. “He has a crazy instinct for the game and a knack for getting to the ball — and he loves contact. I remember the first time he was in pads and he was flying around and not afraid of contact. That’s rare for a freshman.”
Grant hails from Cairo, Georgia, population 9,500. It can be daunting for a teenager from a small town to parachute into a campus of 36,000 students — not to mention the clamor and frenzy of SEC football. But Grant stayed focused on what got him there.
“I grew up with it just being about football, not all the lights and noise and things, so I kept that in my head and got to work,” he tells OZY. “I noticed all the other stuff when I ran out the tunnel for my first game. I was thinking ‘This ain’t Cairo,’ but then I settled in and it was about football.”
Grant has adapted to the buzz of a major university town, but he hasn’t lost his hometown self. He adores Cairo: the closeness of family and the remoteness of the countryside. When he was 6 years old, he moved with his mother to Cocoa, Florida, but managed to persuade her to let him return to Cairo in middle school. He lived with his sister, who is 12 years older, and joined his school’s football, basketball and baseball teams, all called the Syrupmakers. In high school, Grant moved in with his father, who owned a farm, and together they went hunting, fishing and four-wheeling outside town. Not quite one year into life at UGA, he notes with some despair, “I haven’t had a chance to go fishing yet.”
Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker marvels at Grant’s versatility. He has the size to be a thumper and play inside linebacker and stop the run. He has the agility and speed to play outside and cover receivers. Tucker says Grant could be a “Jack” linebacker, a hybrid of defensive end and linebacker, but could also play the “Sam,” a versatile run and pass coverage backer. What thrills Tucker most, though, is Grant’s zeal for the game: “He has a work ethic to go with everything else.”
And “work ethic” isn’t empty calories for Grant, who possesses the so-called intangibles coaches look for that have nothing to do with physical prowess. In his first position group meeting as an incoming freshman, he fell right in step with veteran players watching an opposing offense get dissected on film. “He picked up the playbook faster than anybody I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” says Bellamy.
A young athlete who shows an early command of the details of his position and meshes that with physical ability is someone to watch — which has Tucker and Bellamy, among others, excited to follow Grant’s breakout season this year. Grant played in all 15 games as a freshman in 2017 and had nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and shared in a sack. Georgia had juniors and seniors in their linebacking corps, which squeezed the freshman out of more playing time.
Grant exhibits the typical reserve some young men show toward strangers, especially strangers carrying notebooks and asking questions. He seemed slightly embarrassed during the interview on media day for the national championship game because he was attracting attention usually directed at starters. But once the interview wrapped up, Grant slid over to another chair and was prodded by teammates to sing some of his rhymes.
He obliged, and his voice was soft and melodic — not what you’d expect from a bruiser on the football field. “They have been trying to get me to do something and I’ve been trying not to,” Grant said of his music. “I freestyle every once in a while in the locker room, but never out here for everybody. It’s just my music.”
Grant and Tagovailoa came close to syncing up as members of the same recruiting class for Alabama in February 2017. Grant grew up a Crimson Tide fan, and Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach, had visited Cairo to recruit him. Ultimately Grant chose Georgia.
All eyes will be on Grant and Tagovailoa when they finally meet on the gridiron. Georgia figures to dominate the SEC Eastern Division, while Alabama is expected to continue its reign in the SEC Western Division. Grant vs. Tagovailoa — the duel within the duel — should be something to behold.