ATHENS -- Georgia’s season is far from over after just one game, head coach Mark Richt emphasized Sunday. The main goals are still right there. But the Bulldogs will have to pursue those without one of their best players.
The Georgia football team got the very bad news it dreaded Sunday. Star receiver Malcolm Mitchell, injured while celebrating Georgia’s first touchdown of the season, has a torn ACL, will require surgery and will miss the rest of the season.
The Valdosta native was injured on Georgia’s fourth offensive play, before he had a chance to make a catch in Saturday’s 38-35 loss at No. 8 Clemson.
“He actually hurt it in the exuberance of the first touchdown of the game for us, when he went to congratulate his teammate,” Richt said. “They went up and chest-bumped, or whatever, and he landed in a bad way.”
It’s a huge setback for the Bulldogs as they enter another big game, against No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday. Georgia has lost three straight to its SEC East division rival, and a fourth straight loss could doom the team’s chances at getting back to the SEC championship game.
“There’s no reason you can’t feel like you can win the league at this point,” Richt said. “So I think the guys know that. We’ve actually lost a game the last couple years and had a chance at the championship. So the philosophy is to try to win the East and then win the SEC, and then at that point you hope that everything works out to where you can play for the national championship, as well.
“But the only thing you really can control is whether you win the East or not, whether not you win the SEC.”
It will be a more difficult task without Mitchell.
A third-year junior, Mitchell will be eligible to apply for a medical redshirt, and Richt assumes Mitchell will ask for one. That would give him two more years of eligibility. But Mitchell is considered a pro prospect and appeared set to be a candidate to enter the 2014 draft, so while the injury news might impact him potentially sticking around Georgia for one more year, it may not mean much beyond 2014.
Mitchell caught 40 passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns last year and also rushed for 32 yards. That was in a limited receiving role for the first four games, as he was playing at cornerback. As a freshman, he had 45 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns and added 38 rushing yards.
“We’ve got others guys that have gone deep that can make plays for us, but Malcolm was certainly one guy that could do that,” Richt said. “He had great speed, quickness, he can snatch the ball in traffic. He was a great competitor.”
It also hurts Georgia’s special teams, as Mitchell was one of the team’s top punt and kick returners.
Georgia does have a deep stable of receivers, with sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley figuring to move into a bigger role. Scott-Wesley is one of the fastest players on the team, along with freshman receiver Reggie Davis, and Scott-Wesley also has been showing lately that he’s more than just a speedster. He made one nice catch Saturday on an underthrown ball, then got balanced and got a first down.
“He made some really fine catches in traffic, sometimes kept his balance and got good yards after the catch. And he’s a good blocker. He’s a very active blocker,” Richt said. “Justin’s gotten himself in tremendous condition, and he now, I think, really believes in himself, and he’s gotten better as we go. I’m proud of him, and with Malcolm getting hurt, I’m sure his role is gonna expand, as well.”
Richt said the team will have to decide who will move into the role as the “X” receiver, which Mitchell played. Junior Michael Bennett moved into that role for the majority of the Clemson game, according to Richt.
“We’ll be trying to figure out the best way to line everyone up,” Richt said. “(Bennett) did a good job, but we’ll have to see if that’s the best for him and for everybody else.”