CHATSWORTH — Throughout much of his life, Ladd McConkey has spent fall weekends wearing orange and white cheering on the Tennessee Volunteers from the stands inside Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.
This fall, he’ll be wearing different colors (red and black) in a different stadium (Sanford) in a different SEC town (Athens). And he’ll do it all from the sidelines as a member of the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team.
On Wednesday morning during National Signing Day, McConkey, a three-star athlete at North Murray High School, signed his letter of intent to attend Georgia on a football scholarship.
The signing party in the school’s media center before friends, teammates, teachers, coaches and family wrapped up a whirlwind past few weeks as high profile schools including Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt tried to woo him away from the home state school.
But in the end, the feeling of home mattered to McConkey.
“It really felt like home to me,” McConkey said of the University of Georgia. “Everyone told me I’ll know when I’m at the right spot and that’s how I felt.”
Just a few weeks ago, McConkey was a lightly recruited player who had received interest from smaller schools such as Coastal Carolina, Furman and James Madison. But as film of the 6-foot, 165-pound speedster made its way to coaches at bigger schools, almost from out of nowhere those coaches were at McConkey’s house and his high school.
The first of those big-time coaches to visit Chatsworth was Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who on Jan. 20 made an in-home visit then attended McConkey’s high school basketball game. Later that evening, Smart offered McConkey a scholarship.
He didn’t take it immediately. That weekend, McConkey took an official visit to Tennessee. A few days later he was on an official visit at Vanderbilt.
But McConkey’s last official visit to Georgia this past weekend sealed his commitment. After a jam-packed weekend on campus, McConkey and his family were in Smart’s office last Sunday morning.
“I felt like I couldn’t even hold it back,” McConkey said. “I wanted to get it out. I knew what I wanted to do so I finally just told him that I wanted to commit to the University of Georgia.”
Smart stood up and embraced McConkey and his family.
At Georgia, McConkey will be a part of one of the country’s strongest football programs. Several recruiting services tabbed Georgia with the No. 1 recruiting class for 2020. This past season the Bulldogs finished 12-2 with a win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia has made the SEC Championship game the past three years and played for the national title in the 2017 season.
North Murray head football coach Preston Poag called McConkey “the most dynamic player” he’s ever coached in college and high school. Poag, who played at N.C. State, was a graduate assistant coach there from 1991-93 and an offensive coordinator at Newberry College (1993-96) and Virginia Military Institute (1996-99). Poag also was a community coach at Dalton High from 2000-02, and was the head football coach at Christian Heritage School.
Poag also called McConkey the best leader he’s ever had.
“The thing about Ladd McConkey is it’s not all about the football,” Poag said. “He’s going to be a great player for Georgia, but he’s a great kid. All this stuff, this attention, he doesn’t really like the attention. He’s a humble guy. The biggest thing is he’s a team guy and football is a team sport.”
When Tim Ellis, who coaches the North Murray basketball team, got the job he kept hearing about a talented all-star basketball team of fifth- and sixth-graders from Murray County. So he went to Chattooga County to check them out.
“I see this little curly-haired, skinny, knock-kneed kid just going everywhere,” Ellis said. “Gosh, that kid, he can get after it. He can play. He plays hard.”
That kid, of course, was Ladd McConkey. That tenacity extended from the basketball court to the football field.
Throughout his football career at North Murray, McConkey played almost everywhere: quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back, kick returner and even punter. During the 2019 season, McConkey moved to quarterback — a position he hadn’t played regularly in high school — and helped lead the team to its first region championship and first appearance in the Elite Eight.
On the season, McConkey had 143 carries for 924 yards and 10 touchdowns; was 124-for-209 passing for 1,771 yards and 20 touchdowns; had three kickoff returns for 160 yards and one touchdown; had four punt returns for 196 yards and two touchdowns; punted 22 times for an average of 35.2 yards; made 17 tackles; had four interceptions with three returned for touchdowns; and had seven pass deflections.
He was the Region 6-3A offensive player of the year and Region 6-3A first-team member and made the Daily Citizen-News All-Area first team as an athlete.
At Georgia, coaches have told McConkey he will play slot receiver and could return kickoffs and punts. McConkey, who sports a 4.56 40-yard dash, can’t wait to show Georgia fans his talents.
“They’re going to get someone that’s going to give their 100% all the time, no matter what,” McConkey said. “I’m ready to go out there and compete every single day and do what I do best.”
Football runs in the McConkey family. His older brother Hinton was a starting quarterback at North Murray and went through the recruiting process in 2014-2015, as he first attended Presbyterian College on a football scholarship then transferred to the University of West Georgia. Their father Benji was a standout player at Dalton High School from 1991-1994 who quarterbacked the 1994 team to a 13-1 record and a spot in the state semifinals that season.
Benji McConkey, like Ladd, summed up the whirlwind recruiting experience with words such as “unbelievable” and “a dream come true.”
There was one drawback to Ladd pledging to the red and black of Georgia. The family’s long allegiance to Tennessee would be tested. Was it difficult to switch sides so swiftly?
“Actually to be honest with you, it’s not hard at all,” said his father, who was wearing a red Georgia shirt and a wide smile at Wednesday’s signing party. “Kirby came in here and showed the love and it blew me away, it blew Ladd away, we’re all blown away. Ladd made up his mind he was going to Georgia, he wouldn’t come out and say it. In the back of his mind he was hoping Tennessee would offer, too, but they didn’t and it’s their loss.”