ATHENS -- Aaron Murray was proven.
His targets on the perimeter for 2011 were not.
Sure, Tavarres King caught 27 passes a year earlier, but he wasn’t really turning heads, especially with the attention that Kris Durham and, upon returning, A.J. Green got from defenses. The jury was still out on Marlon Brown.
And as far as Georgia’s wide receiving experience coming back, that was pretty much it.
Never miss a local story.
Israel Troupe and Rontavious Wooten combined for 10 catches and 69 yards and didn’t move the needle of conversation. Things were to the point where defenders like Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith were getting time on offense.
Murray, the All-SEC quarterback could throw, but to whom?
Enter the youngsters, led by highly recruited freshman Malcolm Mitchell. Freshman Chris Conley was earning preseason praise, but he soon was on the redshirt list. Michael Bennett was a redshirt freshman awaiting his first college action.
Tight end Orson Charles was Murray’s best receiver coming back, catching 26 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns while also blocking.
Worry grew in the season-opening loss to Boise State, where Charles led the way with six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.
“It wasn’t coaching, it wasn’t bad playcalling,” Bennett said. “It was us not executing as a team.”
But the youngsters grew up might fast, starting a week later against South Carolina. The Bulldogs still lost 45-42, but four different wideouts caught 10 of Murray’s 19 completions, led by Mitchell with five for 52 yards.
And Georgia’s passing game began to find a serious groove, led by Mitchell, who had turned heads during summer workouts.
“A guy I knew was going to come out there and make plays for us,” Murray said. “He’s done a great job of really making sure he understands his routes, understanding the playbook, and understanding defenses and how to change his route based on defenses.”
Conley said the wideouts are students eager to improve.
“It’s something that grows every time that Aaron gives us an opportunity to make a play,” said Conley, a freshman from North Paulding. “We practice to be that way. We work in practice to be consistent and to give him great looks. You start to be able to understand how he’s thinking and what he’s looking at.”
Conley has caught 11 passes in the past five games for 223 yards and two scores.
“Obviously, we were all thinking Conley was gonna redshirt, and he comes in and he’s been playing unbelievable since they pulled his shirt midway through the season,” Murray said. “He’s been playing lights out.”
Bennett has come up with a few highlight-reel catches after a shaky opener.
“It’s really great to have that confidence I didn’t have in that first game against Boise, when I was a little nervous, as you might imagine, my first game,” Bennett said. “Now, it’s slowing down, it’s not as nerve-wracking.”
Mitchell, Conley and Bennett have combined for 78 catches, 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns. That makes up 36 percent of Georgia’s catches, 39.3 percent of the passing yardage and 32 percent of the touchdowns.
Murray has passed for a program-record 32 touchdowns. His numbers otherwise haven’t changed much, but they don’t tell the whole story, starting with the improvements from the South Carolina game.
“I think from there on out, I built a trust in them,” Murray said. “(Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo) built a trust in them and in myself to allow me to use the whole field and not just focus on one side or the other.”
With no go-to wideout and Charles certain to earn more attention that most tight ends, Murray had to spread his attempts around and see who would step up in place of a magnet like Green.
“I think it helps the coaches, too, in that when you’re trying to think of a way, how many ways can we get the ball to A.J. Green when everybody knows we’re trying to get it to A.J. Green, and everybody’s trying to double-team A.J. Green,” head coach Mark Richt said. “It’s just hard. And then, if you’re at halftime, and A.J.’s touched it once or zero, it’s like, ‘Well, we’ve gotta get it to A.J.’ ’’
Green had nine touchdown receptions in 2010, despite playing in only nine games. That was 36 percent of Georgia’s touchdown passes.
Veterans King and Brown have improved as well, thanks to defenses being unable to focus on anybody as a Murray favorite.
King has 37 catches, second on the team behind Charles’ 40, for 413 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Brown has 14 receptions for 228 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. Even No. 2 tight end Aron White’s numbers have picked up; he has one fewer catch than in 2010 for 36 fewer yards, but the senior has three touchdowns catches with two games to go.
“I just think we’ve done a lot better devising plays,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot of plays where there’s five eligibles going out, all five of your eligible receivers are going out on the route, and quite frankly, the defense really does dictate where the ball goes.
“We have some plays that we’ve got tape this season where you might’ve called one play and it’s gone to five different receivers at one time, according to the coverage.”
More often than not, a few freshmen are among those five different receivers.
“They’ve definitely gotten better,” Murray said. “We have a lot of weapons. It’s a lot of fun.”