Hartley spoke in the tone of a patient educator trying to dial back his eager prodigy while not wanting to dull his enthusiasm. In his fifth year coaching tight ends at his alma mater, Hartley has appreciated the opportunity to be Bowers’ position coach since he enrolled in January 2021.
What is it like being the custodian of a wunderkind?
“I’m just trying to find ways not to mess him up now,” Hartley said. “But he challenges me to find new ways to reach him. He challenges me to find new ways to continue to make him a better tight end, to continue to improve upon maybe the little things in his game that could help him possibly on the next level.”
A player with high-end speed, leaping ability, coordination and drive, Bowers isn’t a finished product, but he’s close to it for this level. Hartley searches for new drills to chisel away at the remaining flaws. One imperfection that Hartley can work on is Bowers’ route running. Hartley shows Bowers video clips of NFL tight end stars such as Travis Kelce or George Kittle running routes similar to those that the Bulldogs have in their scheme.
“I can show Brock, ‘Hey, maybe at the top of your route, you can sink your hips a little bit more,’” Hartley said. “‘You can rage out of your break a little bit faster.’”
What Hartley doesn’t have to do with Bowers is motivate him.
“The kid’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met,” Hartley said. “He’ll be the first one to breakfast, he’ll be the first one in the training room to get his ankles taped. He’ll be the first one in the meeting room. He’ll be the last one to leave the field.”
In practice, when Hartley takes Bowers out of a drill to give his backups opportunities, Bowers gets ticked off and wants to know what he did wrong.
Hartley said he answers back, “Nothing, buddy. Just stand right here. It’s O.K.”
If the tight ends do 10-yard sprints, Bowers wins those. If it’s 30 yards, Bowers wins those, too. At SEC Media Days in July, Smart shared an anecdote about how the younger tight ends conspired to take down the king one day during the offseason condition program. The team has a conditioning drill in which players sprint 100 yards down the field, jog across the width of the end zone and then sprint back 100 yards.
Bowers’ tight-end teammates decided one of them would go full blast on one sprint to challenge him while the others hung back, and then another tight end would be more rested to take on a presumably fatigued Bowers on the ensuing sprint. It bears mention that the conspirators weren’t clumsy oafs; Hartley has recruited a series of four-star prospects to eventually succeed Bowers.
Smart said that Bowers “beat every single one of them turn by turn by turn while they rested and waited up, and they just couldn’t beat the old vet.”
It isn’t just that Bowers is fast. It’s that, in a competition in which his peers were stacking the deck against him, he refused to allow himself to finish second.
“He’s got extreme talent,” Hartley said. “He can run, he can jump, he can catch, he’s tough. But what makes him special to me is just his competitiveness. He is the ultimate competitor. The kid doesn’t want to lose in anything.”
During the portion of practice open to media on Tuesday, as the tight ends rotated around the field from drill to drill, Bowers didn’t sprint to the next station, but he jogged much faster than his teammates in the August heat. The kid doesn’t want to lose in anything.
It is an insight into how Bowers has flourished at Georgia, where he has become just the second Bulldog in team history to earn first-team All-America honors as a freshman and sophomore (joining Herschel Walker). He has been integral to the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national championships, leading the team in receptions in both seasons. After winning the Mackey Award last year as the nation’s top tight end, he has the chance to become the first two-time Mackey winner in the 23-year history of the trophy.
Hartley can share tales with others who’ve taught Bowers. Erin Griffin, who was Bowers’ Spanish teacher at Napa (California) High School, said that Bowers didn’t necessarily raise his hand for every question, although “he did participate frequently,” she wrote in an e-mail. But he did take his schoolwork seriously and stood out as a kind young man with strong character.
“He wasn’t motivated by just learning to get a good grade,” Griffin wrote. “Rather, he possessed a great curiosity to really understand the content.”
Georgia fans will want to get a close look at Señor Bowers over this coming season. His likes may not perform in red and black again soon. (To be clear – yes, Georgia has many exceptional athletes who will be first-round picks. But players with enormous athletic gifts whose coaches describe them as the hardest worker they’ve ever met are decidedly less common.)
Besides the ridiculous catches and jaw-dropping speed. Bowers has imparted to the Bulldogs and Hartley this – the establishment of an almost unreachable standard for the tight ends who will eventually succeed him, including sophomore Oscar Delp and freshmen Lawson Luckie and Pearce Spurlin III.
A player who pesters him to let him go back out onto the field is a small price to pay for such a legacy.
“That tells you that he wants to be great,” Hartley said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity that I get to coach him. He’s such a great kid.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC