Bulldogs, George Pickens happy to be back together again

ATHENS -- About the only thing as rare as George Pickens making a media appearance is the sophomore receiver scoring a touchdown for Georgia this season.

Pickens did both for the Bulldogs this week. He hauled in his first TD catch in seven weeks Saturday against Mississippi State, then talked with reporters in a video conference call Tuesday night after practice. It was only the third time Pickens has been available in a formal interview situation since he signed with Georgia out of Hoover, Ala., in 2019.

So, there was a lot to catch up on. Pickens seemed more than happy to bring everybody up to date on everything that’s been going on with him this season, including that mysterious injury that knocked him out of competition for two games covering four weeks.

Georgia would refer to it only as “an upper-body injury.” Pickens on Tuesday called it “a minor strain” in his shoulder.

“It was, like, my shoulder,” said Pickens, who missed the Kentucky and Florida games as a result. “But it wasn’t nothing too painful, but I couldn’t do it. I mean, just to be on the safe side, the coaches wanted me to stay out and cheer my team on, which is what I did. And they did a great job.”

Well, not exactly great. Pickens remained in Athens when the Bulldogs traveled to Kentucky on Oct. 31 and to Jacksonville to play Florida on Nov. 7. Georgia went 1-1 in those games and the offense averaged 17.5 points during his absence.

“It was kind of frustrating because, of course, I wanted to play,” Pickens said. “Every player wants to play, and I’ve never had an injury that I wasn’t able to play through. So, yeah, it was kind of frustrating. But it was good to see guys step up who play behind me and show their talents.”

ExploreGeorgia 9th in first College Football Playoff rankings

Pickens was replaced in the lineup by freshman Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, who scored on a 32-yard touchdown catch just 3:16 into the Florida game to put Georgia ahead 14-0. But Rosemy-Jacksaint suffered a fracture/dislocation of his right ankle on the play and was sidelined for the season. The Bulldogs ended up losing 44-28.

That was particularly difficult for Pickens to witness from afar.

“I mean, I was very proud of Marcus because I know how hard he worked, I know how much he puts into his game,” Pickens said. “But when I saw his injury, of course I was hurting at the time. He’s just got to fight through it and keep training because it’s part of the game.”

Georgia’s offense, already struggling coming into that game, really stalled after that play. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was also hurt, taking a late shot to his throwing shoulder at the end of the play and eventually leaving that game and sitting out the one just played.

With Bennett sidelined, Georgia finally got sophomore transfer JT Daniels ready to play at quarterback, first for the Nov. 14 Missouri game that got canceled, and then for Mississippi State.

Daniels’ insertion into the starting lineup coincided with Pickens’ return to the field, and that certainly worked out well for all parties. Pickens came away with 87 yards on eight catches, including his first touchdown catch since the Auburn game on Oct. 3, and Daniels became the first Georgia quarterback in history to throw for more than 401 yards and four touchdowns in his first start.

“It felt good to get back and play with the guys,” Pickens said. “That’s really what I like doing the most, hanging out there and being with my friends.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Pickens’ presence cannot be downplayed as a factor in Daniels’ overall passing success. Pickens being on the field created more opportunities for freshman flanker Jermaine Burton, who led the Bulldogs’ with 197 yards and two touchdowns, and slot receiver Kearis Jackson, who had four for 55 yards and the game-winning score.

“I think it helped,” Smart said of Pickens’ presence. “You’re looking at a combination of factors. No. 1, (State) was a risk-reward defense whose strength was in their front and their linebackers, not really their secondary. And then JT made some good throws, we won some 50-50 balls, we got some P.I.s (pass interference), we got a hard-count free play. A lot of those things we’d seen all year, we just didn’t hit them.”

The thinking is that the No. 9-ranked Bulldogs (5-2) might hit more such plays this Saturday when they travel to South Carolina. The Gamecocks (2-6) are reeling in the wake of coach Will Muschamp’s dismissal on Nov. 15.

In addition to all the other issues they were already having, South Carolina has had three starting defensive backs opt out this season. That includes 6-foot-4 cornerback Israel Mukuamu, who had three interceptions in the upset of Georgia last year, and Jaycee Horn, the team’s co-leader in interceptions this year.

Mike Bobo, South Carolina’s interim head coach, said Daniels’ presence makes Pickens “a home-run threat every time.” As a result, don’t expect the same high risk-high reward defensive approach from the Gamecocks as Georgia saw from Mississippi State.

Likewise, it’s probably not reasonable to expect the same kind of approach from the Bulldogs either. While Daniels certainly will be looking for Pickens and all the receivers for the deep ball, Georgia wants to and needs to re-establish its vaunted running game.

Downfield blocking was an area in which Pickens had shown dramatic improvement over last year. In fact, it’s thought to have been a blocking play on which Pickens was injured. But the Bulldogs remain more interested in passing Pickens the football, like they did last year when he caught 49 for 727 yards and eight touchdowns to earn freshman All-SEC honors.

That remains a work in progress this season. Pickens has only 21 catches for 227 yards and three touchdowns three-quarters of the way through this season. He had 12 catches for 175 yards and a TD against Baylor alone to earn MVP honors in the Sugar Bowl at the end of last season.

But that doesn’t mean this has been a down season, Pickens contends.

“I think I’ve helped a lot of other people grow like I wanted to do at the beginning of the season,” he said. “People like Jermaine Burton, Marcus Rosemy, a lot of the young guys, I feel like I helped them grow a lot knowing it was going to be a tough season with COVID and everything.”

The Bulldogs wouldn’t mind Pickens helping himself some, now that he’s back in the lineup. It’s hard even for him not to get excited about the potential of him and Daniels becoming an unstoppable combination. Pickens was targeted 10 times by “Cali Kid,” as he called him, and they failed to connect only twice, once on an underthrow and once on a drop.

Pickens liked seeing the ball come his way.

“It’s very important to get your targets and try to get into a rhythm while catching the ball, because it’s going to help your team and your route-running,” Pickens said. “So, you make sure your getting your right depth and try to get the first down or go further. It really helps everybody.”

That was evident this past Saturday. With Pickens back in the fold, perhaps it will be the rest of the way as well.

In Other News