We begin our preview of Georgia Bulldog position groups with the group most decimated entering 2019, and which may have the most to prove in 2020.
It Could Have Been . . .Worse?
Let’s be honest: the Bulldog passing attack was never going to hum along smoothly in 2019, even with a veteran QB, following the loss of current NFL stars Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin, and Riley Ridley. And that was before leading returning receiver Jeremiah Holloman was kicked off the team during the summer. Yes, we knew there would be some growing pains on the outside.
Graduate transfer Lawrence Cager entered the season as Georgia’s clear leader at the position, which is both a credit to him and an indictment of everything else going on at the position. Cager would finish an injury-plagued senior season with a very respectable 33 catches for 476 yards and 4 touchdowns. When he was healthy he was as good as you could ask.
When he wasn’t, the Bulldogs moved the ball with the spirit of a condemned man headed toward a date with Ole Sparky. Georgia’s third down conversion percentage dropped from a solid 47.5% in 2018 (10th nationally) to 41.2% (51st in the country). Georgia went from 226 passing yards per game in 2018 to 223 an outing in 2019, but the difference felt less like three yards and more like a chasm. It was clear at times that Jake Fromm didn’t really have a go-to receiver when he needed one most, and he knew it. Fromm reverted as a result, and offensive coordinator James Coley cast about for anything that would help him get his guys humming again.
As the year progressed some of the younger receivers who will headline the group in 2020 began to show some serious sparks. but let’s be clear. With a new offensive coordinator running a new offense, a ton of new faces, and a new quarterback throwing to them, this group remains an utter mystery outside of a few prominent contributors.
By George, We’ve Got Something Here
First and foremost among the Bulldogs’ returning receivers has to be George Pickens. To say Pickens came into his own through the 2019 season would be an understatement on par with saying The White Album was sort of alright. Pickens led the team in receiving and earned Freshman All-SEC honors with 727 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, highlighted by a monster second half against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl in which he hauled in 12 passes for 175 yards.
Pickens’ freshman season included the 3rd highest touchdown total by a UGA receiver ever, behind only the likes of Terrance Edwards (11), and a host of others at 9 (including A.J. Green, Edwards (again), Brice Hunter, Hassan Graham, Tavarres King, and Riley Ridley. If he played four seasons in Athens there’s every reason to believe he’d destroy Edwards’ Georgia career record of 30 total touchdowns.
That won’t happen barring injury or catastrophe. Pickens is a first day NFL draft pick as soon as he wants to be. But that’s the future. For now there’s every reason to believe the 6’3, 190 pound sophomore will have another big year in Athens this year. One of the nightmare scenarios for Bulldog fans would be for Pickens to suffer a sophomore slump, thereby not drawing matchup attention away from other receivers.
Senior Demetris Roberson returns off a 30 catch, 333 yard campaign. The Savannah native has earned praise from the coaches for his steady presence in the lineup. It feels like this could be the year for the speedy Roberson, with the ability to play both outside and in the slot, and even in the backfield, to find his place in Todd Monken’s attack. Look for Roberson to grab one of the starting outside receiver spots.
Another receiver whose been praised as a “surprise” this summer is redshirt sophomore Kearis Jackson. When Jackson went down with a foot injury in 2019 it further depleted an already banged up unit. A healthy Jackson would give Monken another versatile veteran receiver capable of stretching defenses vertically and horizontally.
Injuries however are a part of the game, and they’ve already taken a toll on this unit. Sophomore Dominick Blaylock appeared ready to return from a torn ACL suffered in the SEC Championship Game when he tore the ligament in the same knee last week. It was a heart-breaking setback for a player whose 17.2 yards per catch average in 2019 was the team’s highest. For an offense that is looking to generate more explosive plays to lose arguably its most explosive receiver is a tough blow.
Junior Matt Landers scored a career high for catches in the Sugar Bowl with 3 grabs for 25 yards. The 6’5, 215 pound Florida native has NFL size at the position and could fill an important niche outside. Early reports from camp have him playing his most consistent football ever. Look for Landers to put up some good numbers this season, especially if some of the young blue chip recruits need some additional time to develop.
Landers’ fellow 6’5 receiver Tommy Bush should also push for more time in 2020. The redshirt sophomore was a surprise in the spring but suffered through an injury-riddled redshirt freshman season, catching 1 pass for 1 yard late in the Georgia Tech game. But when healthy Bush has excellent size and sneaky downfield speed that should make him a weapon.
Junior Trey Blount also remains an unknown quantity. After playing in all 14 games as a freshman and sophomore Blount saw action in only 4 contests in 2019. Blount didn’t dress out for most of the back half of the 2019 season due to injury. But when he’s been healthy he’s flashed good hands and exceptional blocking ability. If any combination of Blount, Landers and Bush can stay healthy in 2020 it would be a huge lift for the whole receiving unit.
Another wildcard in the rotation will be redshirt freshman Makiya Tongue. The 6’2, 210 pound Louisianan saw action in three games during 2019 without a reception, but came to Athens as a legitimate blue chipper. There’s still plenty of time for him to find his place in the rotation.
The Kids Are (Better Than) Alright
Perhaps no team in America signed a better class of wide receivers in 2020 than the Red and Black. Paradoxically, how much those freshmen contribute this season may be an inverse barometer of how good the Bulldog receivers perform as a unit.
Jermaine Burton (6’0, 195) is the most highly ranked of the Bulldogs’ signees and a safe bet to crack the rotation in the slot. Burton has exceptionally quick feet and is fantastic in the open field. He’s tailor made for Monken’s offense, and I for one can’t wait to see how he’s used.
Bulldog fans should also be excited about Florida standout Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. The 6’2, 195 pound Pompano Beach native is a downfield threat bigger than his size thanks to strong hands and excellent body control.
Of all the freshman receivers on this list, perhaps none had the potential of McDonough native Justin Robinson. The 6’4, 200 pounder committed to the ‘Dawgs early in the recruiting process, and probably would have been a higher profile prospect but for that, and playing at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy instead of a big football school. Robinson has the most complete set of physical tools and skills in the 2020 class. I believe he’ll make a name for himself early.
Arian Smith (6’0, 185) is among the most tantalizing prospects on the roster. The national level track star was among the three or four fastest players on the roster the moment he stepped on campus. He looks to be a sorely-needed home run threat who could play the x, y, or z receiver.
Finally, late class addition Ladd McConkey was a highly productive standout in high school who’s slippery as an eel with the ball in his hands. While McConkey may need a year to mature physically and refine his technique, he could become a reliable Wes Welker-type.
If you’ve been counting along, that’s a baker’s dozen of players with a strong chance to crack the receiver rotation. Unless he changes his modus operandi, Todd Monken is going to run more plays than James Coley and Jim Chaney ever considered. That means his unit will need more bodies just to stay fresh.
There is opportunity to be found here. And I suspect a mix of veterans and freshmen will seize it. Who exactly? It’s hard to say. But one of the benefits of recruiting the way Kirby Smart and his staff have over the past four cycles is that you get a lot of shots on goal. Look for the UGA receiving rotation to center around Pickens, Roberson, Jackson, and perhaps Landers. But understand that there should be plenty of balls to go around for others. Until later...