ATHENS, Ga. -- Former Central Gwinnett High School football coach Jason Thompson can't remember the exact number of college coaches who weren't interested in recruiting his star player, Mekhi Mews, in 2021.
Whether the coaches were from FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III or even NAIA programs, nearly every one of them told Thompson the same thing: Mews is too small.
"Everyone was worried about how short he was," said Thompson, now the defensive coordinator at Camden County High School in Kingsland, Georgia. "I mean, that's hard. You can't fudge that. You know what I mean? It is what it is."
In two games for two-time defending FBS national champion Georgia this season, Mews has proved height isn't everything. On a team chock full of four- and five-star recruits, the 5-foot-8 walk-on has been arguably the No. 1 Bulldogs' most explosive player.
In Georgia's 48-7 victory over FCS opponent UT Martin in the opener, Mews had a 54-yard touchdown catch. In last week's 45-3 win over Ball State, he returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown. It was Georgia's first punt return for a score in nearly five years. Through two games, Mews also leads the team in receiving yards.
Going into Saturday's SEC opener against South Carolina at Sanford Stadium, Mews ranks No. 2 in the FBS in punt returns with a 26-yard average on five returns. He would rank fifth in the FBS in kickoff returns with a 39-yard average if he had enough returns.
"We saw him in high school, and he was high on our preferred walk-on list, and he earned it," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "He came out and really competed and did a great job. I think everybody on the team will tell you he's earned what he has gotten with the way he practices."
Mews' early success isn't surprising to his teammates, who have been raving about him since last season. He made such an impact on the scout-team offense that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo dubbed him "Waffle House" because he was always open in practice. On many days, Mews scattered and diced Georgia's highly regarded defense, which struggled to smother and cover him.
"I've seen it every day since he came in here," receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint said. "Him being on scout teams, just going out there against the ones [and] giving everybody the blues. Every day he makes plays -- that's all he does. Those little runs, that's what he does on a daily basis."
Mews made his share of explosive plays during his final two seasons at Central Gwinnett High School in suburban Atlanta. As a senior, he was named All-Gwinnett County and all-state as a receiver. While playing on a team that finished with a 1-9 record, he was also named his region's player of the year and the county's wide receiver of the year after catching 76 passes for 1,065 yards and eight touchdowns.
"He was our punt returner, kick returner, and, really, he would've been our best defensive back," Thompson said. "I just couldn't play him all the dang time because you only got so many snaps on a Friday night that they can go before they fall out. But when we needed someone to cover, he was our guy that played."
That's why it was so perplexing to Thompson and former Black Knights recruiting coordinator Chaz Ferdinand that college football programs, even those at the sport's lower levels, weren't willing to give Mews a scholarship.
"A lot of smaller schools, I'm like, 'This kid is dominant on tape, dominant. Who cares if he's 5-foot-8?'" said Ferdinand, now an assistant coach at Kell High School in Marietta, Georgia. "We weren't shooting for the stars at the time. I was trying to get schools like Samford and Furman to offer him, and they were like, 'He's too short, Coach. We just don't know. There's a taller kid we can take.'"
When Ferdinand pushed back and argued that other players weren't as productive as Mews in high school, the coaches countered that they were taller and projected better in college.
"One school said, 'Coach, we just don't know if he has big-play ability,'" Ferdinand said. "That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. Me and you obviously aren't watching the same tape. The first play on his tape, he breaks 16 tackles on a kickoff return and takes it 100 yards to the house."
Mews' size wasn't the only thing that caused college recruiters to pass on offering him a scholarship. He played his first two seasons at Grayson High School, a powerhouse program in suburban Atlanta, but appeared in only a handful of games as a sophomore because of a torn hamstring. In his junior season at Central Gwinnett in 2020, he broke his collarbone and missed several games. Besides games from Mews' senior season, college recruiters didn't have much tape to evaluate.
There were also fewer scholarships available in 2020-21 because the NCAA granted college student-athletes a sixth year of eligibility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes to the NCAA's transfer rules also didn't help. According to Ferdinand, FCS and Division II coaches were more inclined to take an FBS transfer than a smaller, unproven high school recruit.
In the end, Olivet Nazarene University, an NAIA program in Bourbonnais, Illinois, was the only team that offered Mews a full scholarship. FCS program Savannah State was willing to give him a partial scholarship; Mews said it would have cost him about $8,000 per year to attend the school. HBCUs Morehouse College, in Atlanta, and Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, also offered him partial scholarships. FCS program Tennessee Tech extended him a full ride but withdrew it after another player committed.
"I was just sending teams my film just anywhere, honestly, just to get a look," Mews said. "Some teams would respond, but nobody would ever pull the trigger, if that makes sense, like actually offer me. They'd be like, 'Oh, yeah, we'll let you know.' Or they'd have me send transcripts and stuff, but then I'd never hear back from them."
Mews sent his tape to Georgia in December 2020. About a week later, then-receivers coach Cortez Hankton replied and asked for kick return highlights. The next month, Hankton called Ferdinand and said the Bulldogs wanted Mews to join their team as a preferred walk-on. He'd have a spot on the roster but wouldn't receive a scholarship. Because of his grades, much of Mews' educational costs would be covered by the state's HOPE Scholarship program.
Mews and his mother visited Georgia's campus. Some of Mews' friends told him he would never see the field with the Bulldogs and should go somewhere else where he could play. Mews asked Ferdinand what to do.
"What's the worst that's going to happen?" Ferdinand told him. "If it doesn't work out, then you transfer in two years to a school that you would've ended up at anyway. Or maybe even something bigger than what you've got now because you're going to be in the portal and then the portal is going to say that you came from Georgia. It's not going to say, 'Walk-on from Georgia.'"
Mews ended up committing to the Bulldogs. He didn't have to look far for inspiration. Quarterback Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on, helped lead Georgia to its first national championship in 40 years in 2021 and then won it again the next season. Walk-on safety Dan Jackson was a starter on the 2021 defense that had five starters selected in the first round of the NFL draft the next spring.
"First off, Mekhi works his tail off every day, and that's really all it comes down to," Jackson told reporters after the Ball State game. "If you show you can play and you show you have that work ethic, Coach Smart really appreciates that. When you have that kind of athleticism, they are going to find a spot for you. And then the hard work is just an extra."
Mews doesn't yet have a scholarship at Georgia. He does have name, image and likeness deals that help cover his housing costs and other expenses. Bennett made more than $1 million in NIL contracts as a senior last year.
"I feel like it gives hope to other walk-ons on our team and allows them to know, 'Hey, there's a chance I could play if I just give it my all,'" Mews said. "I feel like a lot of guys on the team, they're cheering for me. A lot of walk-ons on the team that were in the same position as me, it's like I'm paving a path. Because every time you see a walk-on that is able to play or contribute, it gives the other walk-ons more confidence that they can do it."