Mekhi Mews’ returns provide spark for Georgia Bulldogs

ATHENS — It’s hard to argue that Georgia was missing much of anything the past two seasons, as the Bulldogs went 29-1 over that span with a pair of national championships. But the presence of Mekhi Mews back deep on punts and kickoffs this season is a reminder of how dangerous for opponents a great returner can be.

Not since Mecole Hardman was fielding kicks a few years ago have the Bulldogs had such a threat back deep. That was on display again Saturday in Georgia’s 45-3 win over Ball State. The redshirt freshman walk-on from Grayson returned three punts for 111 yards – including a 69-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound Mews also had a 47-yard kickoff return and three catches as a slot receiver. As a result, he led the Bulldogs (2-0) in all-purpose yards for the second consecutive week, with 185.

“I’ve seen it every day since he came in here,” senior split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint said. “He’d be on scout team going against the 1′s and just giving everybody the blues. Every day he makes plays. That’s all he does.”

In Saturday’s case, Mews’ biggest play seemed to spark his team. The Bulldogs entered the second quarter in a 0-0 slog when the Ball State was forced to punt. Fielding a high-arcing kick right on the 31-yard, Mews dodged immediately sidestepped two defenders, then took off up the middle of the field and faded toward the visiting sideline as he outran the Cardinals’ angled pursuit to the end zone.

Jason Thompson, Mews’ high school coach, said the diminutive wideout ran a solid 4.5-second 40 when he played at Central Gwinnett, but suspects he’s even faster after training for almost two years now with the Bulldogs.

“I saw a bunch of green grass,” Mews said about what happened on his touchdown return. “I feel like everybody on the punt return unit blocked and executed well. So, I just wanted to execute and do my job as well.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, perhaps becoming slightly weary of the growing legend of the little walk-on, echoed Mews’ sentiment regarding the exemplary execution by the returns’ units. But it’s also hard to deny that No. 87 brings some special gifts to special teams.

Georgia ranked 19th nationally in punt returns as a team last season, averaging 11.52 yards, but failing to convert any into touchdowns. In 2021, the Bulldogs ranked 46th at 9.79 yards per return, but with one score.

That was with Ladd McConkey and Kearis Jackson serving as primary returners. But Jackson is playing in the NFL now, and McConkey has been sidelined through the first two games this season with a back injury.

“He does it every day in practice,” Smart said. “He’s done a great job as a scout-team guy for us, and when you go against the kind of guys we’ve got at our place, you’re going to get better. I love Mews; he’s been a great guy. But, to be honest, there’s 10 other guys out there that were elite across the board.”

Among the starters that Georgia deploys on punt return are Rosemy-Jacksaint and safety Malaki Starks. “Those are really good football players that are out there making great blocks for their teammate,” Smart said.

Through two games, Mews is averaging 26.0 yards on five returns. He also has been making good decisions with the ball in the air, fair-catching the ball when appropriate. On a play Saturday, he duped the Ball State coverage team into thinking he was going to field the ball, then let the ball go at the last second. After breaking down to prepare to make a tackle, the defenders had no shot of stopping the ball short of the goal line, which rolled across the goal like for a touchback.

Soon, teams might start thinking about punting the ball away from Mews. As it is now, his very presence back deep for the Bulldogs seems to provide a spark. His TD return certainly did as the it represented the first six points in what would be a 31-point second quarter for the home team.

“I felt a little momentum shift,” Mews acknowledged. “But I don’t feel like that was me. I think my teammates expect me to do my job. It’s more about how much work I put in and we put in as a unit.”