DECATUR — Devonte Wyatt underwent an unusual transition from high school football player to elite college prospect to UGA football signee. It began at a nondescript, dual track meet in Conyers in the spring of his junior year.
Wyatt was entered in the shot put and discus competitions for Towers High, as usual, when he looked over and noticed the sprinters warming up. Wyatt knew some of the guys preparing to run in the 100-meter race and thought he was at least as fast as most of them, if not faster.
Keep in mind that Wyatt stands 6-foot-4 and weighed 280 pounds at the time. So he looked decidedly different than the other sprinters. But he always has been known for his extraordinary speed and quickness for his size, and he has a competitive spirit some have described as “otherworldly.”
So Wyatt asked his track coach if he could run in the race.
“He was, like, ‘Hey, I can beat those guys,’” said Dr. Brian Montgomery, his football coach. “His coach says, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and win the shot put first and we’ll see what we can do. If you do, we’ll go over there and put you in the 100.’”
Wyatt won the shot put. So it was on.
A short while later, Wyatt saunters over to the starting line wearing his Air Force One sneakers. As his competitors climbed into starting blocks in their sprinter’s spikes, Wyatt hunkered down into something resembling a three-point stance.
The gun fired. Wyatt’s fellow entrants shot out to an early lead, but Wyatt soon found his stride. He edged the field at the finish line for his first sanctioned 100-meter victory in high school. The defensive lineman had bested his challengers while winning the race in a hair under 12 seconds.
“It was crazy the way they got off so fast, but I just kept scrambling hard, running hard,” says Wyatt, still excited to retell that oft-told story. “I believed in myself. Once you believe in yourself you know you can do anything. I believed I could beat them, and I did.”
That race is a fitting metaphor for Wyatt’s life. Freaky physical feats and a strong belief that he can overcome anything or anybody are trademarks of Wyatt’s persona. Both of them were strong factors in him garnering and accepting a scholarship offer from the Georgia Bulldogs in February. Wyatt will be among the 19 remaining members of UGA’s ballyhooed “SicEm17” recruiting class that will report to campus later this month.
Speed attracts attention
Montgomery was in the stands to see that now-legendary race, and he immediately recognized the magnitude of what he’d witnessed. He procured a copy of a video made of the feat and shared it with college football recruiting coaches he had among his contacts.
The video was eventually posted on YouTube and has more than 21,000 views.
“I was, like, ‘Man, y’all have got to see this,’” Montgomery said of emailing copies to the coaching friends he has made over his years in football.
Distributing the video had its desired effect. Coaches began inquiring about this fleet-footed behemoth from Decatur, and soon they came calling. The first offer was from Oregon State, whose lead recruiter happened to be an old fraternity brother of Montgomery’s.
“But he knew they didn’t have a chance,” Montgomery said with a laugh. “He knew Devonte wasn’t going to get out of the South.”
Maybe not, but that first offer from Oregon State was a big deal to Wyatt. It wasn’t until then that he really understood the reality of what his physical abilities could do for him.
It also expanded his knowledge of the college football landscape.
“I didn’t know who [the coach] was,” Wyatt said of that first recruiting meeting. “I saw the little beaver on his jacket. I was wondering, ‘Why’s he got a beaver on his jacket?’ I couldn’t think of any Beavers in college football. He said he was from Oregon State. I’m thinking, ‘That sounds far away.’ I’d heard of Oregon but not Oregon State.
“But after he gave me the offer, I got happy. I was smiling. I looked up Oregon State online and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a D-1 school. Division 1.’ I was like OK, this is good.”
As is often the case when a prospect receives that first major college offer, it gave way to a bunch of others. South Florida, Georgia State, North Carolina State quickly followed suit. After that the offers came in bunches.
“That’s when I realized it was fixing to get serious my senior year,” Wyatt said.
Montgomery also sent that video to his friend at Georgia. Jonas Jennings and Montgomery had coached together at Tri-Cities High School after Jennings’ UGA and professional football career ended. Jennings is now on the Bulldogs’ football staff as the director of player development.
“I was like, man, ‘You’ve got to get this to Kirby [Smart],’” Montgomery said he told him.
Jennings did, and that’s when the Bulldogs got involved in earnest. But it took a while to pique their interest.
While Georgia was confident about what it could do with Wyatt on the football field, it needed to make sure he could compete in the classroom as well.
Getting his act together
Wyatt is like a lot of young people who grow up on his side of town. He didn’t always think about one day going to college and pursuing an undergraduate degree. In fact, none of that sort really crossed his mind until he found himself with the opportunities being afforded him by playing football.
The irony of that is then it was almost too late. It wasn’t until he started traveling and visiting schools that Wyatt realized he had a lot of work to do in the classroom to play football in college.
“He kind of came in like most of the ninth graders where he really wasn’t that serious,” Montgomery said. “And then the light kicked on and he started to realize that, ‘I have all these opportunities and there’s a totally different route I need to go. I can get out of my neighborhood through playing football.’ He realized that the academic piece of it plays a very big role. So where he struggled as a ninth grader, he worked a lot harder and utilized a lot more of the resources we had to assist him going forward from there. So things have gotten a lot better with him academically.”
Much of the thanks for that can be directed to Montgomery. The Towers coach – who recently left one DeKalb County school for another, Columbia High – holds a Ph.D. in education from Capella University, a master’s degree from Alabama State and an undergrad in biology and premed from Texas Southern. He shined the light down the path Wyatt needed to go and guided him along the way.
And that wasn’t limited to academic guidance. Montgomery also had to help beat back the relentless advances of southeast Atlanta street life. Gangs saw the hulking Wyatt as having useful assets for the games they play.
That was something with which Wyatt was actively dealing when he first met Montgomery. At the time, Montgomery was still coaching and teaching at Tri-Cities High. In addition, he was part of an after-school program that helped students with reading.
Both Montgomery and Wyatt share a story of an incident in which Wyatt was “snatched away” by some gang members while attending that function. But Montgomery snatched Wyatt back and convinced the individuals trying to take Wyatt away to “let me have him.”
“That was his sophomore year,” Montgomery said this past week in an interview at Columbia High. “His life has changed tremendously for him since then, and that’s not just being able to get the amount of attention he’s gotten in the recruiting process. Leading up to that, his focus was totally different, in the classroom and in the school as far as behavior. He turned it around very quickly and started moving himself away into a different class of people. He started being a leader.”
That transformation is what allowed Wyatt to develop into a 4-star recruit. By the summer of his senior season, he had to think about whittling down his choices and making a decision.
He did, but a bit too quickly, as it turns out.
It was the middle of that summer when Wyatt attended a camp at South Carolina. Once again, his speed impressed — he ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash there — and the Gamecocks offered.
“I was happy when they said that, that they had a scholarship for me. I was happy, so I went ahead and committed,” Wyatt said. “Then everybody started calling me. That just cranked it up.”
Georgia comes calling
One of the persons particularly “cranked up” was Georgia defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. Rocker and Wyatt had gotten close over the summer, almost in more of an adviser-pupil role than recruiter-prospect. Rocker had been telling Wyatt how to play his recruitment, and what to do to put himself in the best position to succeed both academically and athletically.
“Coach Rock told me, ‘It’s not all about the scholarship; it’s about your grades. We’re not going to just throw you a scholarship. We want you to excel,'” Wyatt said. “He told me about how you can’t get anything easy; you’ve got to work for it. He told me to get my grades up and he’d get me a scholarship.”
Rocker might’ve slow-played Wyatt just a bit too much, but he was not happy when Wyatt committed to the Gamecocks.
Devonte Wyatt ✔️ #SicEm17
— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) February 1, 2017
“Coach Rocker called me and said, ‘What happened, man?’,” Wyatt recounted. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘you can’t get caught under pressure like that.’ And they did have me under pressure. They were like, ‘We want you to commit right now.’ But it was a good school. I like South Carolina. But you have to understand that Georgia is home for me and I feel much more comfortable there. And Coach Rocker knew that.”
Several weeks later, Wyatt got his coveted UGA offer. He accepted, and South Carolina was old news.
Obviously, Rocker was a big reason Wyatt settled on Georgia. But Rocker left the Bulldogs unexpectedly only a week after National Signing Day. Wyatt said he has yet to speak to him.
“It kind of hurt. It kinda did; I ain’t gonna lie,” Wyatt said. “I paused like, ‘Dang, what happened?’ At the same time, I wasn’t going to let it stop me, I wasn’t going to let it change my mind. He wasn’t the reason why I went to Georgia. He was part of the reason, but Coach Smart was part of the reason, Miss Christina [Harris, director of recruiting administration] was part of the reason, some of the players, just being at home. It kind of hurt when he left but, at the end of the day, I still felt comfortable with my decision.”
The truth is, Wyatt couldn’t have changed his mind without consequences. NCAA rules would have required him to sit out a year via the transfer policy.
Very soon after Rocker’s departure, Wyatt heard from new Georgia defensive line coach Tray Scott. That allayed his concerns.
“He was really cool. And funny. I liked him,” he said.
Where should he play?
Another reason Wyatt’s recruitment was slow to get started was his coaches didn’t know where to play him. Was he a tight end, a receiver, a running back, an offensive of defensive lineman? He was an athletic enigma because he ran like a skill player but exhibited the physical traits of a lineman.
In fact, he played all the aforementioned positions.
“That’s the crazy part about it, my ninth and 10th grade, they didn’t know where they wanted to play me,” Wyatt said. “I was playing tight end, running back, fullback, linebacker, everywhere. They didn’t know where to put me. I was fast and tall. I had good meat on me but wasn’t as big then. So they were moving [me] around.”
I'm gone keep grinding until we go home a w pic.twitter.com/sXzGcmtxIV
— Devonte Wyatt (@datboi_vontae) September 22, 2016
Wyatt says the only reason he quit playing tight end — which is really his favorite position — was his coach at the time was convinced he couldn’t catch. He blames it on a wardrobe malfunction.
“I had this little No. 17 jersey and it was too tight. It was too small,” Wyatt said. “They’d throw the ball to me and it’d be high and I couldn’t get my hands up.”
Wyatt also wrestled at the 270-pound weight limit while in high school, played basketball and baseball, and was a standout in paintball. That’s right, paintball. It was one of his favorite pastimes growing up and playing in and around East Lake Park.
Wyatt had a very active upbringing, growing up with two older brothers, Marrie and Larry Wyatt Jr. They all still live in the same house in the Chestnut Hill subdivision off Snapfinger Road.
Wyatt said he didn’t grow up with a lot of luxuries — his parents, Darlene and Larry Wyatt Sr., have always worked hard at hourly-wage jobs — but that they’ve always had everything they needed. Their entertainment generally came outdoors in the form of one competition or another.
“Everybody in my family is big,” Wyatt said. “Everybody is tall; everybody played sports; everybody was in good shape. We’ve never been a family to just sit around. We were always doing something, playing kickball, playing basketball, playing paintball. Anything to keep us moving, keep us active. It was fun.”
The Wyatt home was always the center of the universe. Almost all of their meals were eaten at home and made by Mama. Friends and extended family members often stopped by and ended up at the table. And then they might stay a day or two.
“Ham, turkey, collard greens, baked beans, she cooks all the time,” Wyatt said. “She loves to cook, her and my dad. That’s how I got so big. Got to slow down now, though. ‘Bout to get serious.”
Next stop: UGA
The good news now is there is no doubt Wyatt will play on defense. Now a solid 295 pounds, he’s a lineman, through and through. The only question is whether he develops into a nose guard or tackle or an edge-rushing end.
The good news for the Bulldogs is there is reason to believe Wyatt has not come close to tapping his potential.
“He’s raw now. He’s raw,” Montgomery said. “That’s what makes everybody go, ‘Oh, my goodness, this kid is going to be unbelievable because he’s very raw.’ I mean, we have a weight room, it’s nothing like he’s going to have at Georgia. We don’t have a booster club that gets us all this equipment.
“Once he gets into training table and training regimen they have up there, there’s no telling how good he can get, how big and strong he’ll be.”
Wyatt will be coming into a situation at Georgia where he won’t be necessarily counted on to play right away. The Bulldogs return every starter on the defensive line and most of the primary backups as well. Trent Thompson is a preseason All-SEC candidate and John Atkins and Jonathan Ledbetter could contend for postseason honors as well.
But that doesn’t mean Wyatt is going in with the idea of giving himself time to develop and waiting for a spot to open. He wants to play right away and is sure he can.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’re all good players. But I’m better if you ask me,” Wyatt said. “I’m going up there and working my butt off every day and night. All the time, I’m gonna be working. That’s just me. I just can’t sit there and let somebody else be in the spotlight.
“I’m not trying to down my own teammates. I just feel like I can make plays. I’m a play-maker. I’m not going in there to rest and wait my turn.”
He’s also planning on minding his manners at Georgia, too. He considers his impending time in Athens a business trip.
“I’m the first in my family to go to college,” Wyatt said. “I’m starting a new tradition for my family, for my little cousins and nephews who are looking up to me. I want all them to go to college. I want them to see me playing on TV and say ‘I want to go to college and play on TV, too.'”
If they have speed like Wyatt and mentors like Montgomery, there’s no reason to believe they won’t get there.
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