Can George Pickens re-emerge as offensive weapon for Bulldogs?

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

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12/4/20 - Atlanta - Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver George Pickens (1) celebrates after he completes a Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) pass for a 37 yard gain in the first quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

ATHENS – Nineteen catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns.

Those were the pass-reception totals for Georgia receiver George Pickens in the Bulldogs’ past two bowl games. Could another outing like that be possible against Michigan in the Orange Bowl?

The Bulldogs certainly would take that right now if they knew they could have it from Pickens. But such expectations might be unrealistic, according to coach Kirby Smart.

Pickens definitely is in the plans for the Dec. 31 matchup in the College Football Playoff semifinals. But, nine months removed from an ACL reconstruction on his right knee, Pickens is not quite his old self just yet.

“He is still not 100 percent,” Smart said before Georgia’s practice Monday. “George is working really hard, but we get to see him every day. He is working back to get that way, but he is not there. But nobody is. There is no person on Earth that comes back from an ACL and is back out there and running with the same speed, confidence and breaks that you would usually have. He continues to get better.”

Having Pickens available at all at this point is a minor miracle. When he went down with a non-contact knee injury one week into Georgia’s spring practice March 23 and had surgery a couple of weeks later, the consensus was that it likely ended his college career.

A 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior from Hoover, Ala., Pickens projected as a potential NFL first-round draft pick before the injury. However, the thought was, if he remained in school and committed to his rehab, he possibly could make it back for a playoff run, if the Bulldogs were involved.

Pickens beat that projection by a month. He made a cameo appearance in Georgia’s regular-season finale against Georgia Tech on Nov. 27, then played fairly extensively against Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

Between the two contests, Pickens heads to the Orange Bowl with three catches for 46 yards. He had two for 41 yards against the Crimson Tide, including a 37-yard reception.

Fast forward to Georgia’s bowl preparations, and Pickens now is fully engaged with the No. 1 offense. He promises to be part of offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s plans against the Wolverines.

“The biggest part is (Pickens) understanding all the intricacies of the offense, making sure he understands splits, shifts, motions, IDs,” Smart said. “When you don’t do that for that long, I think everybody just assumes it comes back naturally. But that is not something you just wake up and do, it takes reps to do it.”

Pickens is getting those reps in practice now. However, he’s still getting a considerable amount of treatment before and after Georgia’s workouts and is being closely monitored by trainer Ron Courson.

“He’s a great player,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said before the SEC Championship game. “We’ve just got to get some of that chemistry back that comes with being out that long. But I know he’s extremely happy to be back on the field, and we’re all happy to have him.”

Even if he’s feeling like his old self, it’s doubtful that Pickens will re-emerge as the primary target for Georgia’s quarterbacks. That role is decidedly in the hands of freshman tight end Brock Bowers, who leads the Bulldogs with 47 catches for 791 yards and has scored a team-high 12 touchdowns.

That’s on par with the numbers Pickens put up as a freshman in 2019 (49-427-8) and is on pace with Pickens’ production in 2020, when he missed two of the Bulldogs’ 10 games (36-513-6).

But having Pickens as a secondary target could be invaluable against a stout Michigan defense. The Wolverines are ranked among the FBS top 25 in all facets of the game, including points allowed (T-fourth, 16.1 ppg), rushing (21st, 122.0 ypg) and passing (22nd, 194.7 ypg).

If effective, Pickens’ presence could give Michigan more to think about. Meanwhile, some of his best work has come in the postseason.

Pickens’ breakout game as a freshman at Georgia came against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. He was named offensive MVP with 12 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. Last year, Pickens’ seven catches for 135 yards and a score were key in the Bulldogs’ 24-21 win over then-No. 8 Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

“He had opportunities to make those plays because he was one-on-one in a lot of those situations,” Smart said this week.

Indeed, with Michigan’s defense focused on containing Bowers and stuffing Georgia’s run game, there’s a good chance Pickens could enjoy some one-on-one opportunities against the Wolverines.

But will be up for it?

“He has only been starting to get these reps within the last two to three weeks,” Smart said. “But he is getting better, and he is working hard on his craft, and he has gotten a lot of reps in the last four to five practices.”

Pickens and the Bulldogs have about seven more practice opportunities remaining to get reacclimated.