Georgia’s receiver riches crucial to three-peat bid

Receiver Ladd McConkey sprints during Georgia’s practice session in Athens on Thursday. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Receiver Ladd McConkey sprints during Georgia’s practice session in Athens on Thursday. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

ATHENS — Carson Beck – or whoever quarterbacks Georgia this season – will have an array of weapons at his disposal. And that’s beyond mega-talent tight end Brock Bowers.

No, Georgia doesn’t appear to have an A.J. Green or Marvin Harrison Jr. among its receivers, but it does possess a group that challenges opponents in different ways. There are few teams deeper at the position.

“What stands out is our depth,” leading receiver Ladd McConkey said. “We have like three guys at every position that could go in and not skip a beat. We all have our different styles of play, but there are so many guys who can go in there and contribute. That is exciting. Stay fresh the whole time. I don’t think the defensive backs can rotate like that, so if we can always have fresh guys in there and go play fast, it will be special.”

Quantity is indeed a strength. Adonai Mitchell, a timely performer in Georgia’s playoff games, transferred to Texas. That was a loss, but one Georgia can easily overcome with how it’s managed the position.

For one, McConkey, who led Bulldogs receivers in yards last season (762 yards on 58 catches), is back. He was named preseason first-team All-SEC at the conference’s media days last month, and expectations are high. McConkey said he’s improved his route running, body control and how to better use his athletic ability over the offseason. After dealing with a knee issue in 2022, he seems primed to see his “numbers explode,” as ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller has said. A former three-star from Chatsworth, McConkey unquestionably is Georgia’s top wideout.

McConkey also is an important leader on the offense as other key members from the past two championship teams have moved on.

“He’s an awesome leader,” Bowers said. “He’s kind of like me, kind of leads by example, and he does a really good job at it. He just comes in with a positive mindset and smile on his face every day. So I feel like he kind of brings the whole team’s vibe up a little bit, and he just does everything right.”

Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint joins McConkey as a returning veteran, and his blocking and experience are instrumental. Sophomore Dillon Bell, who had 20 catches for 180 yards, also will be a factor. He played in every game last season and started five.

The unknowns are intriguing. Georgia benefited from the transfer portal despite losing Mitchell and Dominick Blaylock (Georgia Tech). Enter Dominic Lovett and Rara Thomas, two newcomers whose track records justify excitement.

Lovett, now a junior, was an All-SEC receiver for Missouri last season, catching 56 passes for 846 yards and three scores. He does a nice job creating separation, and he should be helped further by improved quarterback play and drastically better surrounding talent. Pro Football Focus listed Lovett as the SEC’s top returning receiver.

“Dom is going to fit in the offense just fine,” said No. 1 cornerback Kamari Lassiter, who’s obviously opposed Lovett. “He’s a great player. He works very hard. You can tell that he loves the game of football. He enjoys being out there, and I enjoy competing against him and watching him compete against some of the other guys on the field as well.”

Thomas, who arrived via Mississippi State, had 626 yards and seven touchdowns in a pass-happy offense last season. Speaking at SEC Media Days, Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers lauded Thomas’ contested-catch ability. His physical nature and willingness to deliver blows also should fit nicely.

He was playing special teams in the spring, and it’s unclear how he’ll be used early, but that’s another testament to the team’s depth.

Then there’s speedster Arian Smith, who’s capable of swinging a game with one go route. His presence alone puts immense pressure on the opposing secondary. There’s no way to confidently rank the five fastest players in college football, but the evidence says Smith is among them, if not No. 1.

Before putting track and field aside to prioritize only football, Smith was a Florida state champion (high school) and clocked 10.18 seconds in the 100-meter dash in the 2021 SEC championship meet. His speed has translated to the football field, making him Georgia’s premier deep threat with plenty of room to develop.

Smith averaged 28.3 yards per catch last season, which included his memorable 76-yard score against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl. His overall effectiveness has been limited by injuries, but he’s healthy and fully focused on football entering 2023. Both factors can’t be underestimated when considering how valuable Smith could be for coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense.

“It’s just the passion; you aren’t going to play football unless you love it,” Smith said. “It’s just like camp. Fourteen days in the hotel, no access, not on social media. Just cutting life off and focusing on football. I would say it’s the passion and the love for it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. I would be running track or still trying to.”

The Bulldogs are stacked with options. If they’re dealing with injuries, aiming for mismatches or playing a hot hand, they have ample pass catchers to deploy however they see fit.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s really deep,” Smith said of the receiver group. “We’ve got a lot of competition, man. Everybody around me is going to make me better, just like I want to make them better. It’s a lot of competition. I’m ready to see what we have in store for this year.”