TAMPA — In a geographic sense, Orson Charles has come full circle, returning to the city where he starred for Plant High to play the final game of his junior season — and perhaps his college career — as Georgia faces Michigan State in the Outback Bowl on Monday.
"I feel like God set this all up," Charles said Thursday, sporting a weeklong smile as a proud host to his fellow Bulldogs. "Playing with my high school quarterback and playing at Raymond James, where we're from, I'm looking forward to seeing everyone in the stands, everyone from Plant, a lot of people from my church, I'm just excited."
Charles is back, and still, he is not the same player that suited up for the Panthers and won state championship in 2008, catching a ridiculous 21 touchdown passes his senior season. He was listed as a receiver then, but in three college seasons he has grown into a full-fledged tight end, right down to the demeanor.
"To me, he's maybe more of a throwback in the fact that you really want your tight end to block," Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. "Now, a lot of these tight ends that are getting their All-American or all-whatever conference, a lot of them are just receivers that kind of play tight end once in a while. They don't block much at all. This kid blocks like a full-grown man, and I think that's why he won the (AFCA All-America) first team. He's more than a guy just catching balls. … He is tough as a blocker, run blocker, pass blocker. He runs routes, he catches the ball in traffic, he tries to run people over."
Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly remembers that Charles weighed 209 pounds when he was at a Georgia camp the summer before his senior year in high school. By that spring, he weighed 220, and he's now listed at 240, very much a tight end's body with a receiver's quickness.
"Since he came to Georgia, he's taken a lot of pride in his blocking, become more fundamentally and technically sound in blocking," said Lilly, who spent 10 years at FSU before joining Richt at Georgia. "He probably didn't have to block as much (in high school), but he's one of those guys that if you tell him he's not good at something, that he can't do something, he kind of sets his jaw to do it and get better at it. It's one of the things he's worked extremely hard on."
Charles is still busy catching passes, too, thrown by the same quarterback who passed to him at Plant, Aaron Murray. Charles' totals this season almost equal his production in his first two seasons at Georgia — he has five touchdowns, as many as he totaled in 2009-10; his team-high 44 catches are five short of what he combined for in those first two years.
And if fans have trouble deciding whether Charles is best used as a tight end or a receiver, Richt says opponents have the same issue, creating a mismatch.
"If they think he's a receiver, they're going play nickel. Well if they play nickel, they put a little nickel cornerback on him, he's going to maul him," Richt said. "Most people play him as a true tight end. … (If) it's a base defense, now let's see if a linebacker or safety can cover him."
NFL defenses could be facing the same quandary in the fall, as Charles is considering skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft. CBS Sports rates him as the No. 53 prospect in the draft, which would translate to a late second-round pick, though Charles said this week he'll take time after the bowl to make a decision about his future.
Defenses have put focused more on Charles as the season has progressed — he had four touchdowns in his first four games, topping 100 yards in an opening loss to Boise State, but he has just one score in his past eight games. He's hoping for a big game Monday, but that starts with a victory and the memories that come with it.
"Nobody wants to end their season losing a game," Charles said. "We want to send our seniors off on a good note, possibly get 11 wins. We'll be the eighth team (in Georgia history) to get 11 wins in a season, and I think this is our first time getting 10 straight wins. We're definitely excited about this game."
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346.