Bulldogs Beat

Georgia’s Bennett, Conley remain underappreciated

ATHENS -- A few weeks back, someone asked Michael Bennett to compare his recruiting visit at Georgia with the other programs he visited. The senior receiver drew a blank.

“I wasn’t that highly recruited player, so I can’t really speak to that,” Bennett said. “I didn’t have too many options.”

Around the same time, fellow receiver Chris Conley was patiently fielding more questions about “Star Wars” and NCAA-related issues. No one asked about the fact he was playing through a shoulder injury or that he was moving up Georgia’s career receiving list.

Bennett and Conley, who will play their final games at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, have been as underappreciated as they’ve been good. They both joined the program as three-star recruits, and they’re leaving with their place in the record books.

“I think there’s always been a chip on our shoulders,” Conley said. “So many people in many places told us we wouldn’t be able to play at a university like this, I and Michael both. And when we came in we did what was necessary to make the field and we both just went to work.”

The two have a lot in common as players, which is part of the reason their accomplishments haven’t been as heralded. Both are in the mold of possession receivers, big (Conley is 6-foot-3, Bennett an inch shorter) but not blazing fast, good route runners with good hands.

That doesn’t make for many flashy highlights. Conley’s diving touchdown catch in the back of the end zone last week was a rare one.

But the play of the two has been a big reason for the success of the offense the past two years.

“You get a lot of different guys at this level who are very talented, but they don’t want to work hard, especially in the summer and the offseason and you’re trying to throw a lot of routes,” senior quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It’s hard when you call them, and they don’t answer, they don’t show up. Those are guys (Bennett and Conley) that you’ve never had a problem with. Any time you ever talk about throwing extra routes, they’re there. They’re the first ones there and the last ones to leave. It’s awesome as a quarterback to have guys like that.”

Conley has 19 career touchdowns, tying him for fifth on Georgia’s all-time list and four away from tying second-place A.J. Green. If Conley did that, he would pass Tavarres King (21) and Fred Gibson (20) in the process.

Bennett is set to join the party, as well, as he has 17 career touchdowns. He also might have one of the most important touchdown catches in recent Georgia history. In 2011, Georgia was trailing Florida 14-0 as the first half ended, and Georgia faced fourth-and-5 from the Florida 20. Bennett wrestled away the ball from a defender in the end zone. Georgia went on to win the game.

An argument could be made that Bennett’s catch saved head coach Mark Richt’s job.

“It’s really just about doing the right thing on the right play and making the catch when it’s thrown your way,” Bennett said. “I feel like I’ve done that my whole career.”

Injuries also have been part of the two players’ careers at Georgia. Bennett tore his ACL in October of 2012, missing the rest of the season. He tore his knee meniscus last season but only missed two games.

Conley badly sprained his ankle last year but only missed two games. This year, he has been playing through more pain.

“I know Chris is playing through a shoulder injury this whole year,” Mason said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. But they’re just great guys who do things the right way, and a lot of times guys like that don’t get a lot of recognition for what they do.”

Bennett admits this career has been more than he expected. He started five games as a redshirt freshman and was the team’s leading receiver as a sophomore before his injury, and along with Conley, Bennett has been the top receiver the past two years.

“I honestly was not expecting to do that well,” Bennett said with a laugh. “So I kind of surprised myself. It’s awesome to see how really blessed I’ve been since I’ve been here, even with the knee injuries.”

True to form, that thought was echoed by his fellow senior receiver.

“I would sum it up as the opportunity of a lifetime,” Conley said of his college career. “It’s a blessing to be able to play on such a team and with such teammates and be able to have some plays that help determine an outcome in some games, and be a team leader. I’m thankful for that, and wouldn’t trade it for anything.”