Georgia star receiver George Pickens out for season with ACL injury

Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) during the Bulldogs’ practice session Tuesday, March 23, 2021, outside the Butts-Mehre football complex in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Credit: UGA Athletics

Credit: UGA Athletics

Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) during the Bulldogs’ practice session Tuesday, March 23, 2021, outside the Butts-Mehre football complex in Athens. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

ATHENS -- It wasn’t necessarily the worst development that could have happened for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2021, but losing George Pickens for the season was close to it.

The school confirmed Wednesday that the junior wide receiver from Hoover, Ala., suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a non-contact portion of the Bulldogs’ fourth practice of the spring session Tuesday afternoon. An MRI showed no further damage to the knee, but surgery will have to be performed, and Pickens will be sidelined the remainder of the year.

“George is a hard worker,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said in the news release. “I know he will bring the same work ethic to rehab that he shows in practice every day.”

What the school did not say is that the injury likely will end Pickens’ college career. A rising junior, Pickens was considered one of the top returning receivers in college football and a potential first-round NFL draft pick. With the standard recovery time of an ACL injury being one year, that would give Pickens just enough time to rehabilitate and show scouts his wares before the 2022 NFL draft.

“Yeah, I’d say that’s a fair assumption, a very fair assumption,” said Terrence Edwards, Georgia’s single-season receiving record-holder and owner of Edwards’ Wide Receiver Academy. ”He is a guy who had the talent to play in the NFL. When he came out of high school I called him a three-and-done. That’s not going to change in my mind. You never know; he may decide to come back for one more year. But ACL’s aren’t a death sentence like they used to be. He’ll just have to get healthy.”

Most will agree that Pickens’ long-term future remains bright. He was unquestionably both the most talented and consistent receiver on Georgia’s roster. Even after missing two games with a shoulder injury last season, he tied for the team lead with 36 receptions, had 513 yards receiving and led the wideouts with six touchdowns. That gives him 1,240 yards and 14 touchdowns on 85 catches in two seasons with the Bulldogs.

Any notion that Pickens might want to make it back for a College Football Playoff run seems unreasonable for a player of his pedigree in this age. LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase projects as WR1 in this year’s draft even after opting out last season.

“Given what they’ve experienced recently with (Dominic) Blaylock and Zamir White (suffering back-to-back ACL injuries), it’s impossible for me to even contemplate Georgia aggressively rehabilitating this injury,” said Matt Stinchcomb, College Football Hall of Famer and analyst for the SEC Network. “That ain’t happening. Not that Georgia was over-aggressive with those. It’s just that it can happen.”

If there was ever a season in which Georgia could absorb a major loss in the receiver corps, it’s this one. The Bulldogs return 11 of their top 12 pass-catchers from last season, six of whom are wideouts. Tops among them are rising junior Kearis Jackson (36 receptions, 514 yards, 3 TDs) and sophomore Jermaine Burton (27-404-3).

As a freshman last season, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint filled at the X receiver (split end) when Pickens was sidelined, and he had a 32-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the Florida game. However, he suffered a broken leg on that play and did not return last season. He’s expected to be cleared to play sometime this summer.

Burton, a speed-burner from California, played flanker last season, already had been working at the X this spring. Fifth-year senior Demetris Robertson, sophomore Arian Smith and redshirt freshman Justin Robinson also will be looked toward for increased production.

“The group as a whole has to step up,” said Edwards, who has trained Robinson in the offseason since he was a sophomore in high school. “They don’t have to be George Pickens. They need to be consistent like George. That was the best thing about him. He was definitely the Alpha in that room, but now there has to be another Alpha.”

Said Stinchcomb of Georgia’s next season: “I don’t think it’s a killer. Is it a fatal development? It’s not. Nobody’s going to argue that it helps. ... Given the fact that there were other weapons rounding into form, there are other options. Where it does hurt you is Pickens is on the outside from a just-throw-it-out-there-and-he’ll-get-it standpoint. Who is that guy? Looking across the conference, I’m not sure there’s anybody better than George Pickens at that.”

Edwards was similar. His primary distinction as a UGA letterman is that he remains the only receiver in school history to have a 1,000-yard receiving season with 1,004 yards in 2002. But he also holds school marks for catches in season (204) and receiving yards in a career (3,093, the SEC record at the time).

With Pickens back, along with second-year starting quarterback JT Daniels, Edwards thought his single-season record was in jeopardy in the coming season. Edwards believes it still might be.

“I’d rather me not be the only thousand-yard receiver in Georgia history,” said Edwards, who starred for the Bulldogs from 1999-2002. “I thought that George had a really good chance this year in the second year of (offensive coordinator) Todd Monken and JT Daniels. Now, maybe it’s Jermaine or Kearis or D-Rob. I always thought Justin, another big kid, could do it. They just have to be consistent, like George.”