Georgia holds out hope for Ladd McConkey return

ATHENS – It seems like ancient history now. Two years ago, when Georgia last visited Auburn on The Plains, Ladd McConkey got his first career start at flanker. He filled in for Jermaine Burton, who had to be scratched due to a groin injury.

All McConkey did was haul in five passes for 135 yards. Sixty of those came on play late in the third quarter on what for Auburn proved to be a back-breaking touchdown in a 34-10 Georgia victory.

There remains a possibility – distant though it must be considered – that McConkey could make a return against Auburn this week. A complicated back injury has kept the redshirt junior from Chatsworth sidelined all season. But after a two-week shutdown, McConkey was cleared to return to practice on Monday. His status for Saturday’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS) remains undetermined, however.

“He’s gotta be able to practice, you know,” coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “And that’s a big part of it. He’s going to be able to come back to practice this week and we’re going to be able to do some more things with him. How he does in those things will determine whether or not he’s able to play.”

McConkey’s absence this season has been among the greatest disappointments for the Bulldogs. Only tight end Brock Bowers has been a more productive player than McConkey during their two-year run that resulted in back-to-back national champions. The 6-foot, 185-pound wideout piled up 1,666 yards and 15 touchdowns between receiving, rushing and punt returns. As a flanker, he was good for 762 yards and 7 scores last season.

But a mysterious back injury that developed in preseason camp has limited McConkey’s practice participation over the last eight weeks. What started as merely having to get treatment before and after practices ended in a total shutdown for the last two weeks.

Monday was his first day back on Woodruff Practice Fields in a black, non-contact jersey. Coaches and teammates were watching with crossed fingers.

“Non-contact early in the week and we’ll try to move to that,” Smart said.

Said Bowers: “Ladd’s done a really good job of staying locked in and staying with the team. We’re just trying to support him through all that because we know he wants to be out there playing.”

Arian Smith and Dillon Bell have each gotten starts in McConkey’s absence. They have 10 catches for 131 yards and 1 touchdown between them.

More injury news

Georgia expects to get safety Javon Bullard (ankle) back into action. The junior from Milledgeville returned to practice Monday after missing the last two games. Likewise, the Bulldogs were anticipating the return of sophomore defensive end Mykel Williams, who missed last Saturday’s game due to an undisclosed “illness.”

Tight end Lawson Luckie (ankle) dressed out last week but did not play. However, he is expected to be on the travel roster for Saturday’s game. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Tyrion-Ingram Dawkins will not, however, be able to get back from a foot injury that has kept him sidelined the last three weeks.

Smart did not address the status of running backs Kendall Milton (MCL sprain) and Roderick Robinson (ankle) when discussing injured players. But he did mention Milton’s name when talking about the progress of redshirt freshman Andrew Paul. Paul gradually has been getting more playing time just 13 months removed from ACL reconstructive surgery. Daijun Edwards remains the starter. Bell, normally a split end, has been getting regular work with the backs

“Whether it’s Cash, Dillon, Kendall Milton, Daijun, those guys are all playing there, too,” Smart said. “We feel like Andrew has done a good job and continues to improve.”

Georgia had 16 scholarship players undergoing treatment for injuries or illness last week. That number has been reduced significantly as the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs prepare for their first SEC road game of the season.

‘A win for tight ends’

It was an unexpected question, but Georgia’s Bowers hauled it in like a tight end screen. The two-time All-American was asked if whether he has followed the nationally-trending story about pop star Taylor Swift allegedly dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

Bowers has often mentioned Kelce as one of the NFL players he admires and tries to emulate. So, not surprisingly, he was informed on this subject.

“It’s kind of a win for tight ends, I guess,” he said to laughter from reporters in the Butts-Mehre team meeting room. “It’s getting a whole lot of media coverage. So, yeah, I’ve seen it everywhere.”

A social media meme started in recently where people were posting messages claiming, “rumor has it that Taylor Swift is dating …” and then they would insert the name of one of their team’s star players. Georgia quarterback Carson Beck was the only Bulldog known to have been glorified in such a way.

But Swift and Kelce are the same age (33). Then, Swift responded to what at first were thought to be joking overtures from Kelce on social media and in interviews. She showed up at the Chiefs’ game this past weekend, sitting in a box with Kelce’s mother. They left Arrowhead Stadium together and reportedly went out on the town together.

Auburn QBs

Auburn coach Hugh Freeze hinted that Payton Thorne would likely remain the Tigers’ starter for the Georgia game. Thorne played poorly in last Saturday’s 27-10 loss to Texas A&M. He was relieved by Robby Ashford, who did not play much better.

Asked at his weekly press conference Monday if that would remain the rotation against the Bulldogs, Freeze implied that it likely would.

“We’re still kind of wading through that, but that’s probably where we’ll land this week also,” he said.