ATHENS — When Cortez Hankton arrived at Jacksonville Jaguars camp 15 years ago, he was a nondescript, 6-foot wide receiver from a small school who went undrafted. His odds of sticking with the team more than a few weeks were long.
He lasted four years of his six seasons in the NFL in Jacksonville.
“Being an undrafted free agent, you go in with the mentality of doing whatever it takes to make a football team,” Hankton said in a promotional video for Vanderbilt. “When I think about my transition into coaching, I coach our guys the same way. Every play matters. Every play is evaluated.”
Tommy Bush will be one of those players being evaluated every play by Hankton.
The Georgia receiving corps will have a different look next season, with events this week helping to shape that change. Hankton is set to take over as the unit’s coach, with James Coley apparently moving into a different role. And Bush, who signed Wednesday on the same day Hankton’s hiring was announced, brings an intriguing blend of height and speed to the Bulldogs.
Hankton comes to Georgia from Vanderbilt, where he coached the wide receivers for three seasons.
Georgia will lose its leading receiver from last season, Javon Wims, who also was the tallest target for quarterback Jake Fromm. Enter Bush, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 191 pounds on UGA’s signing list.
“Obviously his stature is a big thing for us,” coach Kirby Smart said. “We were able to have success with Javon this year, and you’re sitting there going, ‘How do you replace those back shoulder throws? How do you replace those catches? You’ve got to find somebody.”
That could be Bush. Or it could be Matt Landers, who redshirted as a freshman in 2017, starring on scout teams. It even could be J.J. Holloman, a rising sophomore who is listed at 6-2 but plays taller; Wims once said he and Holloman compared well in height.
But height isn’t the only requirement to play receiver, as Hankton showed during his four years with Jaguars. (He also had stints with Minnesota and Tampa Bay, but all of his 34 career catches came with Jacksonville.) Hankton, in that Vanderbilt video, said his favorite player growing up was Jerry Rice, who besides being perhaps the best receiver in NFL history was from a small school ― Mississippi Valley State, which is in the same conference as Hankton’s alma mater, Texas Southern ― and most importantly, known for his work ethic.
“And so when these guys aspire to play on Sundays, I make sure these guys know what it takes to play at a high level, and to be committed to the process,” Hankton said.
Hankton used the term “the process” three times in that video, which lasted less than 3 minutes. So he should fit right in with Smart and his Nick Saban-influenced staff.
“We got to visit and meet with [him] and just thought the world of him,” Smart said of Hankton. “He carries himself in a first-class manner, the way we want to do things at University of Georgia. He’s a very intellectual guy.”
Hankton didn’t have any obvious ties to Smart or Georgia. Similarly, Bush was a bit out of the normal sphere of influence. He’s from a suburb of San Antonio.
Smart said he “fell in love” with Bush at their first meeting. Bush and his parents were doing a southeastern recruiting tour and stopped by Athens, where it was clear to Smart that the family was serious about the process. Smart used the word “professional” to describe their approach.
There also had to be a bit of a leap of faith on Georgia’s part. Bush didn’t play in a pass-oriented offense in high school, only catching 27 passes his senior season. He was rated as a 4-star prospect and the 37th-best receiver in the 2018 class on the 247Sports composite.
But Bush also looked good on the recruiting camp circuit, and showed great speed: 21.3 in the 200-meter dash, per Smart’s recollection.
“And when you have that much size and that much speed, you’re a pretty good football player,” Smart said.
And now he gets paired with Hankton, who also gets to work with incoming freshman Kearis Jackson, and returning veterans such as Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley. Throw in players ready to take another step, including Holloman, and Georgia’s wide receivers should be a pretty interesting unit to watch in 2018.