I'll start off by stating the obvious: it's never good for a team to lose a player for the season, regardless of whether that player is a starter, reserve, or scout team contributor. College teams have a scholarship limit, so, unlike the NFL, teams can't simply go out and sign the next best person, or try to work up a trade. The Dawgs have to dance with the girl that brought them, so to speak, so it will be up to someone currently on the roster to fill the void left by Bennett's absence. Before we can know the extent to which another player will have to step up, though, we'll need to know how big of an impact Bennett was having on the team, so let's jump into some of his numbers on the season.
So far on the year, Bennett is the team's leading receiver in five major statistical categories: receptions (24), yards (345), TD (4), rec./g. (4.8), and yds./g. (69). This, obviously, is not a good sign, but it shouldn't necessarily spell impending doom for the Dawgs, either. The good thing that the Dawgs have going for them this year is balance. Balance not only in the way that we are equally balanced with the pass and the run, but also that we're fairly balanced in our distribution of receptions among our receivers. Tavarres King and Marlon Brown - the Dawgs' second and third leading receivers, respectively - are each within ten receptions of Bennett's highwater mark of 24 catches with sixteen apiece. At 307 receiving yards on the year, King is within forty yards of Bennett's team-leading mark, and Brown, with 264 yards, isn't too much farther behind. Once again, both King and Brown are equal in another stat line - both have 3 TD receptions on the year - trailing Bennett by just one touchdown catch. In yards per game, you'll find parity yet again, as Bennett is averaging just 7.6 ypg more than King (61.4 ypg) and only three ypg more than Brown (66 ypg). Finally, both King and Brown are actually averaging more yards per catch than Bennett, with King at 19.19, Brown at 16.50, and Bennett at 14.38.
In the short term, the bad news for the Dawgs is (aside from the obvious of having to replace the team's leading receiver) that this likely could not have happened at a worse time during the season. The Dawgs are now just three days away from what should be their toughest game of the season, on the road at undefeated, sixth-ranked South Carolina. On top of this, when we really start to dig into the impact that Bennett had specifically on the offense, there are some definite areas of worry/need. Not all receivers were created equal, and Bennett is likely the most sure handed pass catcher we have in Bobo's quiver of arrows. His sure hands, combined with his size (6'3) have led him to be Aaron Murray's security blanket this year, particularly on third downs. In looking at the numbers of the three amigos, on third downs, Bennett has eight receptions for 107 yds., one touchdown and six (SIX!) first downs. By comparison, Brown has three receptions for 68 yds., one touchdown and two first downs, and Tavarres King has just one catch on a third down this year, for seven yards and a TD. To say that those numbers are alarming is putting it lightly. Bennett has been Murray's go-to guy when he has needed someone to keep the chains moving, and who will step into that now-vacated role is quite the conundrum.
The good news for our beloved Dawgs (and, to be clear, there is still good news) is that while the injury probably couldn't have come at a worse time on the season, it couldn't have come at a better position group on the team. The Dawgs easily enjoy the deepest WR corps they've had in several years, with at least six different receivers catching six passes or more on the year. By comparison, Alabama and Ole Miss are the only other teams in the SEC who currently are able to boast this (for clarity's sake, I'm including the TEs in this, but not RBs who catch passes out of the backfield). Another feel-good stat here is that of the Top Ten WR in the SEC this year, Georgia has three, with just one other team, Vanderbilt, contributing more than one (they have two). In addition to this, juxtaposed with the poor timing of the game against South Carolina is the fact that, on defense, we're no longer facing a suspension-depleted secondary. This means that the team's second leading receiver from last year, Malcolm Mitchell - who Richt says is still 'just warming up' on offense - is now able to devote the majority of his practice times to the O (Mitchell practiced entirely on offense Monday and Tuesday).
The obvious question now becomes who on the offense is going to receive the targets that Bennett had been getting, and on top of that, who's going to step up and take on the third down security blanket role that had belonged to Bennett.. Let's answer the first half of that question to begin with, then we'll touch on the second part. The biggest benefactor to this so far will likely be Malcolm Mitchell. The WR who'd been playing mostly defense will see a huge increase in his reps on offense, and I wouldn't be surprised if he steps right back into the starting WR role he occupied for the majority of last year, even supplanting Marlon Brown at times as the receiver on the field when we only have two wide outs. When going three wide, we'll likely see King, Brown, and Mitchell on the field, and when it comes time to go four wide, the player who will see his reps (and likely targets) increase the most will be junior receiver Rantavious Wooten. Wooten had a solid freshman year, then was overshadowed a bit by Kris Durham's return from injury in 2010, and last year battled concussion-like symptoms the majority of the season, leading him to take a medical redshirt. His two big drops last week aside, Wooten has always had pretty sticky hands, and he does a very nice job of playing the slot role in the offense and being able to find holes in the defense, settle in, and make the short 8-12 yard reception when targeted to help move the chains. The other wild card here is Chris Conley, a sophomore receiver with decent size who had a good, but not great, freshman season (though he did have some clutch catches against Florida, which is why he's very fondly thought of amongst fans). Conley has been rather quiet so far this season, but it remains to be seen if that's more a consequence of Marlon Brown's increased role on offense, or if Conley simply hasn't progressed as the coaches have hoped. We should be able to see our answer on that over the next couple of weeks.
Touching on the second part of that question - who is likely to take over the role of third down security blanket - my money is on senior receiver Marlon Brown. Brown has really come out of his shell this year, emerging as a force to be reckoned with on offense. He's looked smooth in his route running, sharp with his hands, and physical against defenders. Bennett's main advantages as a third down pass catcher were his size and solid hands, both of which allowed him to play physically in the slot against bigger linebackers or smaller nickel backs, bodying up against them or even boxing them out, and using his long arms to catch the ball away from his body, bring it in, and move the chains. With the injection of Mitchell to the offense, we should expect to see the 6'5" Brown move from the outside to the slot on third downs, once again giving Murray the big-bodied, sure-handed receiving target that's just a pitch-and-catch away from him for a first down.
All in all, while this certainly isn't a problem that any offensive coordinator wants to be dealing with leading into the team's biggest game of the year, I don't see this having a decidedly negative impact on the offense. If the offense skips a beat at all, it should be only minor, and would likely just be more a result of players adjusting to new roles on the offense. Given that Mitchell has a had a week to re-adjust to playing WR (he had four receptions last week, if I remember correctly) and Wooten has been receiving decent playing time as well, I don't anticipate too much of a hiccup. Couple all of this with a veteran QB who's playing better than he's ever played and delivering accurate strikes on the money to his receivers, and we should anticipate seeing our offense continue as the well-oiled machine it's been operating as all season. To be clear, that's not to say that Carolina's strong defense won't slow that machine down, I just don't think the slowing will be because of Michael Bennett's absence, that's all. To give a metaphor to finish the article, if the Georgia offense were a semi truck, Michael Bennett going down for the season is the equivalent of one of the dual tires going out on the trailer. It will be a minor inconvenience in the short-term, but because there are other pieces around it to pick up the slack, it won't cause a blowout five car pileup on the interstate. Bobo and Ball should be able to pull over and get the tire changed, then get going once again shortly thereafter.
We wish Michael Bennett the best and a speedy recovery. You're a DGD, Michael, and we're looking forward to seeing you playing Between the Hedges again next year. Godspeed, man.
Oh, and, as always, Go Dawgs!