Georgia’s offense soars despite injuries to JT Daniels, others

ATHENS — JT Daniels is not 100% healthy yet.

That is both good and bad news for the Georgia Bulldogs. Obviously, they would much rather have their quarterback completely well. But seeing how Daniels has performed while still dealing with the effects of an oblique injury, it’s also encouraging to know that he conceivably could play even better without this bothersome muscle strain.

Georgia’s junior starter confirmed after practice Wednesday night that he has been dealing with this issue since preseason camp. But he also said that he’s seeing continuous improvement as the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) prepare to head to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-0) on Saturday (noon, SEC Network).

“It’s getting better every day,” said Daniels, who threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns with his strained oblique in last week’s 40-13 win over South Carolina. “It’s something that’s been hurting since fall camp. It never really goes away. You play Clemson, and there was a little bit of a dip. So, we focused on rehabbing more that week. Last week, we had as much (treatment) as we could. This week, we’re still doing the same thing, the same plan. But it’s just going to keep getting better and better.”

Therein lies the reason for optimism for the Bulldogs’ offense. Other than some struggles against a salty Clemson defense in the season opener, Georgia has been very productive overall on offense. And that’s despite playing three quarterbacks.

JT Daniels-George Pickens-Georgia football

Credit: Mackenzie Miles

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Credit: Mackenzie Miles

At the same time, the Bulldogs also have been less than full strength in the receiving corps. Junior Kearis Jackson (knee), Georgia’s returning starter in the slot, received limited reps with the offense for the first time Saturday. Coach Kirby Smart revealed this week that Darnell Washington (foot), the returning starter at tight end, is only days away from being cleared. Speed-burning flanker Arian Smith is on his way back this week after sitting out Saturday with a lower-leg bruise.

All the while, Georgia has been operating without No. 1 receiver George Pickens (knee). While he won’t be back anytime soon, Pickens running routes in practice this week provided further encouragement for the Bulldogs’ offensive future.

As it is, Georgia is averaging a healthy 35.3 points and 428.7 yards per game. And the explosive passing game that has been so elusive for the Bulldogs has been present and accounted for the past two weeks. In that span, they’ve recorded five touchdown passes of 38 or more yards, including 61- and 89-yarders by Stetson Bennett and 43- and 38-yarders by Daniels on Saturday.

Daniels’ best work so far has been on third downs. He was 9-of-11 on those conversions against South Carolina and is 16 of 26 on the season, a conversion rate of 62%.

“Third down is a huge deal for me, personally, and I think for quarterbacks everywhere,” Daniels said. “When you’re in third down, (there’s) a lot less to do with play-action, a lot less to do in terms of running the ball, (run-pass options). Things that make the game easier kind of go away. So, a lot of third down is pure, drop-back passing, something I’ve always prided myself with and something I’m always looking to improve on. Being the type of quarterback that I am, drop-back passing has to be a significant attribute of mine. So, third-down passing for me is an indicator of how I’m doing and how well our offense is doing in the drop-back passing game.”

In summary, quite well.

Daniels carries a 6-0 record as Georgia’s starting quarterback into Saturday’s game. He has only three touchdowns and two interceptions so far, but he has completed 73.8% of his passes for 438 yards in his two games of work this season.

And that’s while competing with a strained oblique muscle. Daniels said Wednesday it developed with an abundance of throwing in preseason camp. It improved before the opener against Clemson but worsened after that game.

“Then the more you throw on it, the worse it’s going to get if you’re not combating it with rehab,” Daniels said. “We’re doing a great job of that right now.”

Barring any more setbacks, Daniels and the offense might finally reach something resembling full strength in October. The prospect of that has mouths watering.

“Right now, I’m fully focused on Vanderbilt,” Georgia’s quarterback said. “I’m not worried about what comes after that.”

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