ATHENS -- Michael Bennett is widely known as the Georgia football teams toughest receiver. So when the sophomore fell the ground on Tuesday, on the final play of practice, Malcolm Mitchell figured Bennett would get right back up.
When he stayed down, we knew something had to be wrong, Mitchell said.
The next morning, Georgia announced that Bennett, the teams leading receiver this season, had torn the ACL in his right knee and would be out the rest of the season.
Bennetts loss comes at a position where the Bulldogs are deep, and were already in the process of working in a new piece -- Mitchell, who played cornerback most of this season. Still, it was not welcome news the same week that the fifth-ranked Bulldogs prepare for their showdown at No. 6 South Carolina, in a game with huge implications.
I feel terrible for him, just knowing how much he worked, and how good of a player he is and how good of a season hes having, Mitchell said.
Bennett, a redshirt sophomore, emerged this season as one of the teams top weapons on offense. He is leading the team with 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns.
The only consolation for the Bulldogs, as they prepare to face No. 6 South Carolina, is that they are fairly deep at receiver: Five different players have caught a touchdown, and that doesnt include Mitchell -- the teams top playmaker last year -- or Chris Conley -- a sophomore whose role had diminished a bit this season.
I think were still gonna be fine, head coach Mark Richt said. But were losing a guy that I personally think he helped the toughness of our unit. I think the way he just went about his business, even when he was redshirted, being a tough, hard-nosed football player. A guy that was gonna make a tough catch. A guy that was gonna block.
It hurts a little bit. But I personally feel like well be all right, senior receiver Marlon Brown said. We still have me, Rantavious, Tavarres, Conley, and Malcolm is back too. So I feel like there wont be a drop-off.
Mitchell and Conleys role should be increased greatly now. Mitchell played cornerback for the first four games of the season, but had moved back to offense with the defense at full strength. Mitchell (six catches for 74 yards this season) was the teams leading receiver last year.
Now, especially with Bennetts injury were going to be using him more offensively, Richt said. But that was the plan last week.
Conley (four catches for 46 yards) emerged as a reliable receiver last year, along with Bennett.
The team also has two senior starters: Brown (17 catches for 272 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Tavarres King (16 catches for 307 yards, three touchdowns). Junior Rantavious Wooten (six catches, 99 yards, 1 TD) could also see a greater role.
But Bennett had emerged as one of the teams top threats, not only in the possession receiver role he had as a freshman, but in all phases of the passing game.
God has a plan for me and everything happens for a reason, Bennett posted on his Twitter account on Tuesday. Get ready for a historic season Dawg nation. Our boys are gonna get it done!
Freshman Blake Tibbs is still expected to redshirt, and redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley is still not in the main six-man rotation at receiver. Rhett McGowan, a former walk-on who is the No. 1 punt returner, is still ahead of Scott-Wesley on the depth chart.
Richt is hopeful that Bennett will be full-speed by the start of the 2013 season. Richt pointed out that South Carolina star tailback Marcus Lattimore tore his knee around this time last year.
And hes recovered beautifully, Richt said. So that really helps Michael and us as we go forward.
Richt said the injury happened while Bennett was in a blocking drill. No one ran into him, no one rolled onto him, his right knee just buckled. We didnt even know what happened, Brown said. I saw him go down, but then he got up and started walking, so everybody thought he was all right.
The team actually applauded Bennett as he walked off. But when the trainers looked at him they feared the worst. Brown told Bennett to call him after hed seen the trainers, and when Bennett did he told him the news.
It sucks, to see a guy work so hard from January to now, to have a freak accident, and hes out for the rest of the season, Brown said. As a team, everybodys gonna play for Mike. But really, we cant slow down as a team. Weve gotta keep practicing as a team, and keep our focus on this game Saturday.