Funny how a little drive and determination can change a narrative.
Actually, a lot of drive and determination.
Georgia redshirt junior receiver Ladd McConkey has spent most of his college career defying the odds as an unheralded three-star prospect out of North Murray High School. Now the 6-foot, 185-pounder is a Southeastern Conference preseason first-team selection who is appearing on 2024 National Football League draft projections.
"Everybody since they were little dreams of playing in the league," McConkey said in a recent news conference, "but I can't do that unless I take care of my business here."
McConkey has been taking care of business ever since he became an 11th-hour afterthought in Georgia's 2020 signing class that was headed by cornerback Kelee Ringo, defensive tackle Jalen Carter, offensive tackle Broderick Jones and tight end Darnell Washington. He spent the 2020 season redshirting and putting on weight — "I was maybe a buck 65 soaking wet," McConkey said of his time at North Murray — but started the 2021 season opener against Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina, and hasn't looked back.
After beginning the 2021 season in the slot, McConkey would eventually move outside and collect 31 receptions for 447 yards and five touchdowns, and he followed that by amassing 58 catches for 762 yards and seven scores last year. He also rushed seven times for 134 yards and two touchdowns a season ago as Georgia won its second consecutive national championship.
The Bulldogs have a chance to become college football's first program ever to win three straight Associated Press national titles, which is why McConkey's leadership skills in the months ahead will be every bit as important as his offensive versatility.
"We harped last year about that team being different from the year before, and this team is different from both of those," McConkey said. "We have our own motivation, because we want to do it ourselves. We've got a bunch of guys who didn't play last year or weren't even here last year, so we're a totally different team.
"Obviously it's something people are going to talk about, and it would definitely be cool, but just getting a national championship is the best feeling, whether it's a one-peat, two-peat or three-peat. Winning trumps it all."
For Georgia to obtain a third straight crown, the Bulldogs must do it with a quarterback not named Stetson Bennett, who is now a Los Angeles Rams rookie. Redshirt junior Carson Beck was Bennett's backup last season and won the job this month over redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton, and McConkey is already a favorite target.
"He's very shifty, and he's very knowledgeable about reading defenses and understanding what he needs to do within routes, which is very nice for me," Beck said in the spring. "Obviously, if we're on the same page, it's easier to get him the ball and get completions. Besides that, he's fast as hell.
"He's fast and athletic and can move, and he makes guys miss. He's a really easy target who gets open."
McConkey will enter this season not only as a potential candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, which is presented each year to college football's most outstanding receiver, but having been named to the watch lists of the Wuerffel Trophy, the William V. Campbell Trophy and the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. The Campbell Trophy is awarded annually to the college football player who best combines his on-field performances with academic success and leadership, while the Wuerffel and Allstate AFCA Good Works each recognize community service.
When asked about being considered for so many well-rounded awards, McConkey said it's an honor "being able to do more than football." That was never more evident than last Christmas, when 10-year-old Hunter Swinney of Chatsworth opened a present containing a McConkey jersey and broke down.
"I saw this Facebook video of a kid crying, so my mom reached out to their family and said that I would like to sign his jersey if we could meet or something," McConkey said. "They pulled up to our house, and I walked out there and surprised him.
"It was pretty cool to be able to do that."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.