2012 was a banner year for coach Tony Ball's route runners. Combining for the better part of 4000 receiving yards, Georgia's receivers accounted for more yards from scrimmage than any other Bulldog receiving corps in the history of Georgia football. Let that sink in for a second...even with a running back contingent that rushed for over 2000 yards, the Dawg receivers still set records in production.
2013 looks like it should be more of same from a position unit that has improved upon its production each of the past four years. Reviewing the sheer numbers alone, Georgia returns eight of its top ten pass catchers from 2012. On a percentage basis, players making up 64% of the receiving yards and 65% of TDs from 2012 are still on the UGA roster in 2013. Add to all of this the fact that Malcolm Mitchell spent the first four games of the year at cornerback and that Michael Bennett was lost for the season after just five games (at a point in time when he was leading the Bulldawg receivers in production), and the veteran-laden unit should be able to pick up where it left off with little trouble.
Even with the high number of returning pass catchers, the wide receiver corps should have a slightly different look in the coming year. First, Tavarres King, Georgia's leading receiver from 2012, is now suiting it up on Sundays and getting paid for it. Marlon Brown, who was lost for the season after 8 games and still managed to come in as the third-leading receiver, graduated and moved on from his playing days in the Classic City as well. There are also some new faces who will be in the mix, most notably, Jonathan Rumph, a 6'5" 215 pound junior college transfer, and Blake Tibbs, who, at 6'2" and 175 pounds, should also see some playing time. Reggie Davis, a four-star wide receiver out of Florida, also has a fighting chance to see some playing time, and Uriah Lemay (younger brother of Christian Lemay) has a chance to peak the rotation as well.
Reasons to Worry
As confident as I am in the abilities of the receivers that the Dawgs have returning this year, there are still a number of issues that give reason to worry about what could happen over the course of the season. To begin with, Tavarres King's absence cannot be overstated. Really, when thinking about King's production throughout his career, it's a shame that he doesn't receive more recognition than he does. Consider this: with 2602 career receiving yards, King is number four on Georgia's all time list. King averaged 22.62 yards per catch last season, which was good for 3rd nationally (and 1st nationally of players from AQ conferences), more than any Bulldog receiver since 2005. He racked up 950 receiving yards in 2012 (the most AJ Green ever had was 963), accounting for almost a quarter of the Bulldogs total receiving yardage. He had nine touchdowns, tying him with several other players (AJ Green included) at 2nd in school history; the only UGA receiver to ever collect more than nine touchdown catches in a single season was Terrence Edwards, who amassed eleven in his senior season in Athens. To say that his impact as a player will be missed is putting it mildly.
Beyond King's absence, Marlon Brown will also no longer be on the field. As physical a player as Georgia has had, Brown had really come into his own in 2012 as a receiver. His combination of size and strength will be hard to replace, both catching passes, as well as blocking. There's also the issue of Michael Bennett's return from an ACL injury. We have seen players return from ACL injuries before without issue, knees are tricky things - it's not out of the question to expect that there may be some rust that needs shaking before Bennett is back to full strength. We have also yet to see Malcolm Mitchell stay healthy for a full season, and his hamstrings seem to be particularly problematic. If he were to go down, and/or if Bennett does not return to form as expected, we could be in for some rough waters.
Reasons for Optimism
Even with the items listed above that could cause worry, there are still plenty of reasons to have high hopes/expectations for the group of pass catchers who will be suiting up for the Dawgs in 2013. The aforementioned Michael Bennett (who was the leading receiver at the time of his injury, after all), will be returning to the group. Aaron Murray has shown a willingness in each of the past two years to use Bennett when he needs a security blanket, so expect that to continue. Malcolm Mitchell, the Dawgs' second leading receiver from 2012, will be entering his third season in the system. After a full off-season practicing on offense (a luxury Mitchell didn't have last year), his fine play is expected to continue, leading him to occupy the number one receiver spot by a long shot. Want a stat to make you pleased about his continued presence on offense? In 2012, Mitchell had eight catches on third down - all of them went for first downs. On third and ten or longer, Mitchell averaged 19 yards a catch. I'll take it.
Chris Conley, who was second on the team in touchdowns last year with six, will also be entering his third year with the program. Conley has a very similar build to Tavarres King, and also showcased his speed in the bowl game against Nebraska. Rantavious Wooten will be a senior, and also seems poised to contribute. Wooten seems to have a knack of finding soft spots in coverage, and I'm excited to see his output with a season of consistent playtime out of the slot. Rhett McGowan, a reliable target when called upon in 2012, also returns. Justin Scott-Wesley showed a lot of progress in Mitchell's absence against Nebraska - given his elite speed, he could do a great job of filling the deep threat role that King occupied.
None of this, of course, even considers the fact that the Bulldogs should also have one of the strongest TE groups in the SEC. Jay Rome and Arthur Lynch both did a fine job of stepping up in the latter part of the season after the injuries to Brown and Bennett. By the end of the season, Murray and Rome really seemed to be building a great chemistry on intermediate range throws (I recall Rome's game-opening touchdown in the SEC Championship, for example), and there's no doubt that Murray is willing to rely on his roommate, Lynch, to bail him out if needed as well.
From a play calling perspective, I expect to see a slight shift back to Bobo's formations pre-2012. To be clear, I think Bobo made big strides in utilizing multiple receiver sets in 2012, and while I don't expect that to be abandoned completely in 2013, I do see it lessening to a certain extent. Given the personnel differences this year (slightly less depth at receiver, more proven depth at tight end) I anticipate Bobo will begin the season with what he's most comfortable with - my assumption, there, is that we'll see either Lynch or Rome on the field at almost all times. We saw more of this later in the year last year, when Bobo's hand was forced to play his tight ends, but now that he's had a full off-season to devise plays to cater to his offense's strengths, their involvement should continue to grow. If Rumph and/or Tibbs turn out to be performers, we could still see the Dawgs line up with three and four wide receiver sets, though. There's a decided advantage in having, say, a personnel grouping of Mitchell, Rumph, Wooten, and Bennett on the field. Bobo has a luxury to be able to plug and play, to a certain extent, so he could substitute Scott-Wesley, McGowan, or Tibbs in and have a very dynamic mix of players on the field at once. Add to all of this the possibility of using Keith Marshall (who showcased his good hands against Nebraska) as a receiver out of the backfield, and it's no surprise that the pundits are expecting a high-powered offense.
Overall, I have high expectations for the receivers for 2013...Aaron Murray's passing numbers have improved each year, and with the wealth of talent that he has this year at both WR and TE, coupled with the experience of the group (all of the starters should have at least two years of experience in the system already), I see 2013 being another record year in receiving yardage - namely, the first time a quarterback has passed for over 4000 yards at UGA.
What say you, Dawg fans? Is there a potential sleeper I've left out, or do you disagree with my rather optimistic outlook? Sound off in the comments, and, as always...