ATHENS -- The Georgia football team made official Tuesday what had been apparent for a while: Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, the team’s two best receiving deep threats, will not play against Clemson on Saturday.
Mitchell is out after knee surgery. Scott-Wesley is suspended for the opener but also has been slow to recovery from ACL surgery, so the team might be without both for more than just the opener.
So should expectations be downgraded for Georgia’s passing offense? As you’d expect, optimism still reigns.
“I don’t want to compare to other years, but I still think our offense has potential to put up crazy numbers and put up a lot of points,” senior receiver Michael Bennett said.
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The Bulldogs can lean on last year for evidence. Despite several injuries to skill-position players, Georgia finished 17th nationally in total offense last year, averaging 484.2 yards per game. The Bulldogs were 15th nationally in pass offense, at 314.2 yards per game, even with Mitchell missing basically the entire season and Scott-Wesley going out in the fifth game.
Still, most of that was with the strong-armed Aaron Murray, while Hutson Mason’s ability to hit the deep ball consistently will be a question. His longest completion in the final two games last year, after replacing the injured Murray, was a 33-yarder to Chris Conley, and the next longest was a 30-yard catch-and-run by Todd Gurley.
So as he entered this season, Mason was certainly hoping to have all help at his disposal.
“You’re hoping you’re gonna get Malcolm, and then that stupid injury happened again,” Mason said.
Still, Mason and the Bulldogs express confidence in the passing game, and the deep threat, based on a couple of reasons.
First, Mason is used to not having Mitchell and Scott-Wesley. They were long gone by the time he took over last season and have basically been absent from practice this spring and preseason.
“You don’t really sit back and feel sorry for yourself,” Mason said. “You’re like, ‘Shoot these are the guys I gotta play with, and we have the ability to go out there and play at a high level.’ I think it just goes to shows how dangerous we can be with those guys, and that those guys who don’t have a lot of experience are gonna get a lot of experience in these early games.”
Second, having speed isn’t the only way to complete the deep ball, as everyone points out.
“Sometimes you don’t have to have blinding speed to go deep, sometimes it’s just a matter of getting off the jam and getting the guy cut off,” head coach Mark Richt said. “You know all these guys have pretty good game speed not many guys just run away from people. But you know we have had a good history of placing the ball where our guys can catch it.”
Put another way, the hope is that Mason can hit Bennett, Conley or someone else on a nicely placed pass after the receiver puts the move on a defender.
“Hutson doesn’t exactly have a Matt Stafford arm but he can definitely get the ball out there,” Bennett said. “So I think (offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo and our game plan will definitely have some shots.”
Georgia also does have some burners left. They just don’t have as much experience. Sophomore Reggie Davis only had 11 catches last year, but one of them was a 99-yard touchdown catch from Murray.
Freshman Isaiah McKenzie might only be 5-foot-7, but he has shown this preseason that he can sneak past the secondary, according to senior safety Corey Moore.
“He really stepped up and showed he can play here in the SEC East,” Moore said. “Pretty fast. He’s a small guy but he’s tough as a nail. And any time when he has the ball in his hands he’s liable to take it to the house.”
And if the long ball just isn’t there? There are other ways to make up for it.
Having Gurley helps, not to mention Keith Marshall and the other talented tailbacks. Gurley became Mason’s favorite target down the stretch against Georgia Tech, and it worked.
Mason also didn’t have tight end Jay Rome, who missed the final four games after toe surgery. Yes, Arthur Lynch was available, but Mason and Rome had a better rapport, having worked together on second team most of the past few years.
“Hutson likes to throw the ball to the tight end, I feel like Hutson and I have a great relationship,” Rome said. “So I feel like I can make a great impact in the passing game.”
Mason and the quarterbacks have put up good numbers in scrimmages this preseason and spring. But that was against a young Georgia secondary, and ultimately the true test will come Saturday.
“We still have the ability to stretch the field with a few guys, and we’re gonna do that,” Mason said. “I think no matter who you’re playing you’ve gotta take some shots and we’ve gotta show the defense that we’re not afraid to stretch the field. So we still have guys like Reggie and some other guys who are very fast and have the ability to stretch the field.”