Georgia on His Mind

FAYETTEVILLE -- The tattoo stretching across Arkansas cornerback Michael Grant's back is a symbol of pride for his home state, not the university that denied the true freshman admission last June.

That's the first thing the 18-year-old from Stone Mountain, Ga., said when asked about the marking he shares with high school teammate and Georgia freshman linebacker Josh Johnson. Grant explained the highly-recruited Stephenson High players, who also are best friends, decided to have the phrase, "Georgia Boy," inked on their backs before their senior season began.

"It has nothing to do with Georgia, the university," Grant said.

But most of the storyline surrounding his first career start does.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Grant replaces injured sophomore Michael Coe at field cornerback in Razorback Stadium tonight against No. 10 Georgia, the school he signed a letter-of-intent with on National Signing Day last February. Eight months and a bizarre twist later, Grant has earned a starting spot with the Razorbacks and will battle talented Georgia receivers Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson.

Grant thought he'd be their teammates when he worked out with the Bulldogs for a week last summer before the university's conduct committee denied him admission. The university didn't publicly provide a reason, but Grant was suspended as a sophomore from South Gwinnett (Ga.) High after having consensual sex with a female student in a school bathroom.

So when Grant takes the field with the Razorbacks in the first quarter tonight, there's no doubt he'll have Georgia on his mind.

"I'm trying to look at it as any other game," Grant said. "But I can't help but get a little excited playing against my hometown team. I'm just real excited because I'm going to get to play a little more (tonight)."

'Georgia Boy'
But Grant didn't circle Oct. 23 on the calendar when he arrived at Arkansas and he said he doesn't have any hard feelings about his abrupt departure from Georgia.

That doesn't mean he doesn't think about it.

"My mom and friends talk about it all the time, so I really don't have any choice but to think about it," Grant said. "It's no big deal to me. I don't think it's anger. (My mom) wants to win that game to rub it in and say, 'You all didn't take him!'"

Grant's mother, Victoria, was stunned by Georgia's decision to deny his admission because "everybody in Georgia" knew about her son's trouble as a sophomore. Victoria emphasized her son never was expelled -- only suspended-- from South Gwinnett High because of the incident, but decided to move Grant to a brand-new environment to give him a clean start.

While staying out of trouble, Grant made headlines from the field the next two years, scoring five touchdowns in a variety of ways (two rushing, a punt return, kickoff return and interception return) for an 11-2 team as a senior. Grant also won the state's 100- and 200-meter dash titles as a junior and was being chased by big-time programs.

Grant eventually signed with Georgia, opting to stay close to home.

"I didn't think it was going to be a problem," said Victoria Grant of her son's sophomore incident. "(Georgia) coach (Mark) Richt told us it was going to be a problem. Everybody in Georgia knew. It wasn't anything new.

"That's why we couldn't understand. That's where the surprise came in."

Grant and Johnson moved to Athens, Ga., last summer, worked out on campus and got to know several Bulldogs like linebacker Odell Thurman.

Grant wasn't cleared by the university, but was assured it was nothing more than a formality. He was in Athens for a week before finding out his eligibility was denied.

"I went through 11th and 12th grade without getting into any trouble, so I don't see what the big deal was," Grant said.

Johnson said his friend was devastated when he couldn't enroll at Georgia.

"He wanted to be here," Johnson said. "He lives about 30 minutes away. He committed before me and convinced me to come to Georgia with him.

"So when it first happened, he was upset and I told him, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to Georgia.' But he talked to coach Richt and (he) said it was out of his hands.

"He had to look somewhere else right away."

Moving On
The decision came so late that Grant still is listed in Georgia's media guide under "2004 Signees." Grant was one of several prized recruits in a touted class that includes tailbacks Danny Ware and Thomas Brown, receiver A.J. Bryant, linebacker Brandon Miller, safety Kelin Johnson and defensive end Charles Johnson.

Richt said his "No. 1 priority" was to help Grant get to another school and Grant said he was ready to move on, so he acted quickly. He received calls from Florida, Tennessee and LSU, but wanted to sign with Arkansas because of the chance to play early in football and compete in track at a top-notch program.

"I didn't recommend anyone," Richt said. "I asked him and his mother to think very strongly about where he may want to go and I would try my best to help pave the way before it became a media spectacle. I felt like he deserved an opportunity to play somewhere where he was comfortable and in (the Southeastern Conference).

"I think he wanted to stay in this league. It was pretty obvious. He was deserving of that opportunity."

Grant said he was fond of Arkansas defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who recruited him, and liked the track program's relationship with the football team. He also got an endorsement from fellow Atlanta native and former Hogs cornerback Ahmad Carroll, who assured Grant that Arkansas might not be a bustling metropolis, but it was a good place to focus on both sports.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt got a call from Richt, who told him Grant's eligibility issues and interest in the Razorbacks. Nutt, who knew Richt as an "honest guy," said the coach explained Grant simply made one mistake as a youngster.

Nutt asked plenty of questions before feeling comfortable with signing Grant.

"I was asking if there's records or problems," said Nutt, who has grown to respect Richt. "My school wouldn't let me probably take one that had a long list of problems or been in jail or had records. So we had to check it out thoroughly also. It wasn't like we would just take anyone.

"After we met him (and) his mother for 48 hours, there was no question in my mind that this person is an excellent person who is going to get a degree. He's a good citizen that is going to do some good things."

Valuable Addition
The Razorbacks needed lots of help in the secondary after losing their top seven players, leaving position coach Bobby Allen to describe Grant's late addition as "Christmas in June."

Grant was a free safety in high school, so he had plenty to learn about the nuances of playing cornerback. In fact, Allen said Grant had trouble covering the easiest route -- the fade -- during the early part of two-a-days.

But Grant, who played 45 snaps at Auburn last weekend and has 14 tackles in six games, has used his speed and aggressiveness to become a quick study.

"He has improved in every area," Allen said. "From his stance to his footwork, his key progression, his ball skills. It's a compete turnaround from the first time I saw him in August to where he's at now.

"I'm sure his adrenaline is going to be running a little higher this week than it has because of who it is."

Grant, who grew close to Georgia's coach during the recruiting process, has plenty of appreciation for Richt's willingness to help him get to a program the Bulldogs play against this season.

He admitted there's a little more excitement earning his first start against Georgia, but refuses to get wrapped up in the hoopla surrounding his ties.

When asked if he had a message for the university, Grant said, "No."

"I don't think that really matters right now because what happened, happened, and I'm at Arkansas now," said Grant, whose older sister, Keisha, is enrolled in Arkansas' graduate program.

Victoria Grant, who has attended five or Arkansas' six games, said tonight's is one she definitely couldn't miss. But to her, the perfect ending to the Bulldogs' saga would be watching "Georgia Boy" make a permanent impression by recording his first career interception and returning it for a touchdown.

"I know it's their loss," she said. "I still have respect for coach Richt. It's God's doing. He's steering the ship. We don't have hard feelings because we still know the guys up there. We know a lot of the kids there.

"But now we're Hogs."

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