ATLANTA — Georgia's football team will carry the collective weight of an entire state on its back Monday night when it takes on perennial power Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Bulldogs have not won a national title since the 1980 season, led by the legendary Herschel Walker, beating Notre Dame 17-10 in the 1981 Sugar Bowl. Time has since dragged on, rather painfully at times, for the Red and Black faithful, as neighboring programs and rivals have won and played for national stardom.
With that in mind it's no wonder that support for this year's title game run has been overflowing -- witnessed by the thousands of barking Dogs fans that showed up for Saturday’s open media day at Phillips Arena in Atlanta.
For players like sophomores Isaac Nauta, Ben Cleveland, Charlie Woerner, and Mecole Hardman, however, some extra support has found its way to them as they get an opportunity to play for one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports practically in their backyards.
Nauta spent three years at Buford High (39 miles from The Benz) before spending his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida. Cleveland graduated from Stephens County (96 miles away), Woerner from Rabun County (106 miles), and Hardman from Elbert County (105 miles). All four programs are synonymous with gridiron success.
More importantly, though, the four standout players have an opportunity to show that there is plenty of high-caliber talent in the northeast Georgia area.
Hardman, who is from Bowman (population 811) -- not Elberton, as he made clear on Saturday -- said he feels all four local players can be an inspiration to small-town kids.
“It's exciting. Where I’m from, small town, you really don’t see many people doing this, and I just try to give motivation to kids back in my town that if you work hard you can get where you want to go,” Hardman said. “So hopefully I can be an example of that, give them motivation if you go hard in school, go hard on the field, in whatever sport they may play in, hopefully they can get to this level.”
Cleveland, from Toccoa (population 8,400), said he's been home a few times during the season and that it always helps keep him grounded.
“I’ve been back a couple of times, but I just stay around the house with the family, don’t get out much,” he said. “(High school) was a lot of fun and I still keep some of the relationships and some of them will last a lifetime.
“It’s great (the support from back home). (My family) loves to watch me play; and it’s awesome knowing I’ve got that support in the crowd. I give all I’ve got for them.”
Nauta, originally from Buford (population 14,356) said it has been hard to escape the attention.
“It’s (been) a blast. I’ve got a lot of support from my hometown people,” he said. “A lot of those people are Georgia fans. I see them everywhere, and it’s great to have those people supporting me.”
Rabun County, where Woerner hails from, is in the extreme northeast corner of the state and holds a population of 12,681. Unfortunately, Woerner suffered an injury during last week’s Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma and was not available for the media day event and is not expected to play in Atlanta.
Two of the four were no strangers to each other on the gridiron during their prep days. Hardman and Cleveland competed against each other twice, with Hardman the quarterback leading the Blue Devils to a pair of victories. Woerner and Hardman also duked it out on various sports.
All four, however, made the same circuit tours of football camps and workshops. All four arrived in Smart’s initial recruiting class in Athens.
Hardman didn’t say it was a collusion for the group to sign at one place but noted there was a small-town bond among them.
“Me, Ben, Charlie we’re all close, even coming from different high schools. I played Ben in football. And I played Charlie — I met Charlie at school in basketball — so we always had a relationship together with each other,” Hardman said. “And it’s good being at the same school with these guys. Small-town people have a connection, and we’re just happy to be here and having fun with it.”
All four also are now having major impacts for the Dogs on the field. Woerner was on track for his best game yet for the Dogs with three catches for 21 yards in the first quarter alone against Oklahoma before suffering a lower-leg injury that knocked him out of the game.
Nauta is not putting up the same numbers he did as a freshman (29 rec., 361 yards, 3 TDs) with just 9 catches for 114 yards and 2 TDs in 2017. But he and Woerner and the other tight ends have been instrumental in the blocking schemes to help produce a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, a first for the program in its history.
The perceived drop-off in production did not faze Nauta.
“Being a competitor you always want to make plays to help your team win. But we’re in the national championship. We’ve got two 1,000 yard rushers for the first time in school history, that’s not easy to come by,” he reminded reporters. “That shows how good of a running team we’ve been this year and at the end of the day all that matters is winning. So to be in this position, I can’t complain one bit.”
For Cleveland, the production of the running backs has been the ultimate team-effort.
“The talent level is amazing, but I think what tops that is the just the trust level,” he said. “All the running backs trust the O-line to do their job. And the O-line trusts the running back to see the holes and (make the) cuts.“
Hardman is second in the SEC in punt return average (11.2 yards a return) and tops in the SEC in kickoff return average at 27.4 yards a return.
“I came here for a reason, and this is the reason I’m here, to win championships,” Hardman stated. “As you see, we’re in the biggest one of them all, and as a small-town kid, for me coming out highly-recruited, a small-town kid can see you can still make an impact where you’re at, even being close to home.”
Cleveland, after redshirting his first year in Athens, finally is showing off the abilities that made him one of the more sought-after offensive linemen in his class two years ago. He cracked the starting lineup in the Kentucky game and has not let go of the position.
“My main thing was to never lose focus and to keep working where I want to be,” he said. “So now that I’m here I don’t want to back off the gas at all, just keep working like I’m fighting for a starting job.”
Nauta said it has been an exhausting week as the players prepared for the biggest game they have ever played in in their careers.
“You really can’t even describe the feeling because it’s such a long season, and you work so hard. You put so much emotional energy into it,” he said. “And now that we’re here — you can’t even relax and take it all in. You’ve got a game to win at the end of the week. But it’s a blessing, super excited, can’t wait to get to (Monday).”
He did say losing Woerner on the cusp of their biggest game to date is tough.
“Losing Charlie, that’s a big blow for us because he’s a big part of our tight end group, and he does a lot of things for us,” he said. “But we’ve got a good group, and we’ve got guys who are ready to step up like Jackson Harris; he’s going play a big role. I think we’ll be ready, and we’re going to step up and play and make some plays for this team.”
But the group also knows few are picking them to take down the Crimson Tide, who have four titles in the last eight seasons and are playing with a chip on their shoulder after many thought they backed into the playoffs.
“We don’t look at what people say, they’re predictions because it’s football,” Nauta stated. “At the end of the day anything can happen, and it’s not always the best team that wins; it’s the team that plays best on that day. You can’t focus on the predictions or what anyone else is talking about. You’ve just got to play a good ballgame.”