ATHENS - It happened so often the past few years, observers of Georgia football probably took it for granted: A third-down pass was zipped over the middle, or sent near the sideline, and it was hauled in by a sure-handed receiver for a critical first down.
Michael Bennett and Chris Conley were adept at making the big catch over the past four years. The pair combined for 251 catches and 34 touchdowns in their careers, many of those in tight coverage, or after a perfectly run route to get open.
Now those two dependable wideouts are gone. Head coach Mark Richt was asked Thursday, after Georgia's final spring practice, if he knew who would make those tough catches in 2015. It's still an open question, he acknowledged.
“That’ll be interesting to see," Richt said. "Malcolm (Mitchell) made a lot of tough catches this spring, I’ll say that for him. Isaiah (McKenzie) actually makes catches in the crowd. I’m trying to think of any other guys that had opportunities. But that’ll be interesting to see. Because that is very important."
Mitchell, who will be a fifth-year senior, is the most obvious candidate to be the go-to receiver on critical plays. He's a proven commodity, with injuries the only reason he's still on the team rather than in the NFL. When healthy, he has not only been able to use his speed, but also haul in catches in traffic.
But other teams will know that, and are likely to focus in on Mitchell. When Georgia had Conley and Bennett on the field together, and sometimes even Mitchell, Georgia's quarterback had several options.
“How many times have we run it on third-and-medium, running a slant with guys hanging all over him, and those guys are reaching out and snatching that ball, getting that first down to keep the drive going," Richt said. "Those tough catches are crucial. We’ll just see who can do it."
McKenzie had a good spring, and can use his speed to get open. The shorter pass into a tight window, however, might be another thing. Reggie Davis and Justin Scott-Wesley are speedsters, but both under 6-feet tall. Incoming recruit Terry Godwin is listed at 6 feet. (Conley and Bennett are 6-3.)
A few other options include Shakenneth Williams, the 6-1 sophomore who was injured most of the spring, or incoming recruits Michael Chigbu and Jayson Stanley (both 6-2) and Shaquery Wilson (6-3).
But ultimately one of the reliable options may be one of the tight ends. That emerged as perhaps the deepest position on the team this spring, with freshman early enrollee Jackson Harris impressing many, and sophomore Jordan Davis having a good spring game. Add them to Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome, the first and second teamers, and that may be who the quarterback (whoever it is) eyes in a pinch.
“I’ve seen our tight ends make those types of catches," Richt said. "Blazevich. Jay Rome caught the ball well. Jackson Harris as well. Jordan had a good spring game catching the ball. Most of his were out in the open. But I think our tight ends have made good catches in traffic all spring long.”