Georgia’s receiving corps nears full strength

ATHENS – The gang’s all here. Almost anyway.

Georgia came the closest it has all season to playing with a full complement of receivers Saturday against Missouri. The Bulldogs welcomed back Jermaine Burton, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Arian Smith against the Tigers and the difference was evident.

  • Burton, a sophomore flanker, finished as Georgia’s leading receiver with three catches for 76 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown. Burton also had a 47-yard catch and came less than two yards from having two more scores.
  • Rosemy-Jacksaint had two receptions, including one that both gave Georgia a first down and stole away a potential interception from Missouri.
  • Smith had just one catch, but it went 35 yards for a touchdown. That continues an incredible streak of explosiveness for the track star wideout. He’s had three TDs on five career catches for an average of 43.6 yards.

Having those three wideouts back at full speed helped the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (9-0, 7-0 SEC) compile 337 yards passing in a 43-6 win over Missouri.

“I thought this game was the closest,” coach Kirby Smart said of having a truly explosive wide receiver corps. “We met on Monday and said, ‘you’re getting the full quota, you’ve got to go get your reps to be able to play.’ … When we are fully healthy at receiver, excluding George and Dom, we have a good unit.”

Georgia is still playing without star receivers George Pickens (ACL) and Dominick Blaylock (knee, hamstring). There is a chance neither could return this year. But, Smart said, “we’re working to get those guys back.”

The Bulldogs know they’ll need all the firepower they can muster heading to Knoxville this Saturday for the SEC finale against Tennessee (3:30 p.m., CBS). The Vols (5-4, 3-3 SEC) come in averaging 38.2 points per game, which just two-tenths of a point less than Georgia.

Tennessee has been particularly explosive in their victories, averaging 49.2 points. Those include this past Saturday’s 45-42 win over Kentucky in Lexington. Georgia beat the Wildcats 30-13 in Athens on Oct. 16.

The Bulldogs had to turn to their passing attack this past Saturday when Missouri loaded up to stuff the run. Quarterbacks Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels completed 20 passes to 11 different receivers. Their completions averaged 16.9 yards.

“You hope to be just as good throwing the ball as running the ball, so they have to pick their poison,” said Bennett, who had 255 yards and 2 TDs on 13 of-19 passing. “If (defenses) go all out to stop one, the other one’s going to bite them.”

Burton and Rosemy-Jacksaint, former starters both, have played sporadically throughout the season due to chronic injuries. Burton has been battling hamstring and groin pulls. Rosemy-Jacksaint has yet to fully recover from an ankle fracture/dislocation that occurred last season.

Smith missed five games in a row with a nasty lower-leg bruise before returning for spot duty against Florida. Saturday was the first time he was able to return to the receiver rotation.

Smith is gives Georgia a different level of speed at receiver. He ran the lead-off leg for Georgia’s NCAA finalist 4x100-meter relay team. He’s been timed at 10.18 in the 100 meters. Or, as Bennett says, “he’s stupid fast.”

Burton is not quite as fast but has good speed and exceptional pass-catching skills. Rosemy-Jacksaint has big, strong hands and specializes in catching hard throws in tight coverage.

Junior Kearis Jackson, another former starter, only recently got fully re-involved in the receiver rotation. The first third of the regular season he was still recovering from off-season arthroscopic knee surgery.

“It fires me up that we have guys on the outside like that,” Bennett said. “That ball I threw to Jermaine, the big one (for 47 yards) where I underthrew it, he just went up and made the catch. It’s exciting to see.”

The best news for the Bulldogs is those players’ absences helped speed up the development of other young wideouts such as freshmen Ladd McConkey and A.D. Mitchell. Along with an exceptional tight end group led by Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, Georgia quarterbacks have a lot of options.

“With the protection that the O-line gives me, I have time to read it out,” Bennett said.

As the season rolls on, Georgia is going to need them all. Tennessee represents the greatest challenge remaining in the regular season. No. 2 Alabama likely awaits in the SEC Championship game.

“A lot of those guys are youthful and we have to go through these, I don’t know what you call them, learning experiences; these moments of just growing,” Smart said of Georgia’s receiving corps. “… We have to get better because the games are getting nothing but bigger and bigger and bigger each week.”

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