No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs still trying to solve for ‘X’ at receiver

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS – Did you happen to catch what George Pickens did with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday? He caught six passes for 102 yards. Pretty good for an NFL rookie.

It’s also better than anything any Georgia receiver has been able to do this season. That’s receiver, as in wide receiver, or wideout, and specifically as an “X.” Not a tight end or a running back.

More commonly known as a split end, every team needs to have a good X. The preference is that you’d have a great one – or two -- and the Bulldogs simply don’t right now.

Georgia believes it has at least one on its roster. Adonai “A.D.” Mitchell proved he was that guy as a freshman last year when Pickens was sidelined with a torn ACL. Who among us will forget his sensational 40-yard touchdown catch that gave the Bulldogs the lead for good in the College Football Playoff Championship game in January? But the 6-foot-4, 190-pound sophomore has missed the past three games with a sprained ankle. His status for Saturday’s game against Auburn is, at the moment, somewhere between questionable and probable.

Mitchell traveled with the Bulldogs to Columbia, Mo., last weekend. He dressed out and was tested by trainer Ron Courson right up to kickoff. In the end, Georgia opted to hold out their star X.

But even if Mitchell comes back for Game 6 on Saturday, it might seem unreasonable to expect him to pick up where he left off. He had five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown when he injured an ankle in the first quarter against Samford.

“AD is hopeful again,” Smart said. “He was close to being able to go last week. We took him with the intention of seeing if he could go. Pregame, we thought he looked pretty good, but didn’t feel comfortable putting him out there. We are hopeful he’s able to this week. We won’t know until we get closer to the game.”

With Mitchell sidelined, Georgia has experimented with several options at X. It’s the primary position for junior Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. However, his best attribute is downfield blocking. His three catches for 46 yards Saturday were career highs.

Senior Kearis Jackson started at the X against South Carolina, and sophomore Ladd McConkey got the nod the past two weeks. Jackson had just one catch for catch yards against the Gamecocks. And while McConkey had 10 catches in the past two outings, he also had some significant drops as well.

Therein lay the key to the split end position: It’s the one spot where a quarterback hopes to have a proverbial “go-to guy.” That is, no matter the down or distance – and especially on critical down and distances – there needs to be a receiver the quarterback can target regardless of coverage. Pickens and Mitchell were such targets. Others still are auditioning to be.

Georgia has worked freshmen Dillon Bell (6-56-1) and De’Nylon Morrissette (2-22-0) at X, but without sustained success. And sophomore Jackson Meeks (3-31-0) has shown flashes but, likewise, has lacked consistency.

Now, all these issues with the X position require an extra layer of qualification. First of all, it’s not like the Bulldogs haven’t been able to throw the football. On the contrary, Georgia actually ranks second in the SEC in passing yards (1,714) and completions (190) and Bennett ranks second in passing yards (307.2 pg) and completions (116). So, it’s not like the Bulldogs have been unable to advance the football through the air.

To date, the key has been the diversity of Todd Monken’s offense. No other SEC team has completed passes to 20 different targets, as has Georgia. Those receptions have been distributed between 12 different wideouts, six running backs and three tight ends.

Meanwhile, it’s not like tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington have been spending all their time playing in tight. Both Bowers and Washington have split out wide at the X. Meanwhile, Bowers has lined up at every receiver position Georgia utilizes in its offense -- X, Y, Z, F and H.

So, there’s no need to mourn the Bulldogs’ momentary absence of a dominant X. As the No. 3 SEC team in scoring (39 ppg) and total offense (521.4 ypg) suggests, Georgia is moving the football and scoring points, which remains the object of the game.

“The wide receiver group is a great bunch,” sophomore Dominick Blaylock said Monday. “We’re all just trying to help the team out in whatever way is possible. If we just keep playing fast and physical, we’ll be able to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin, who came to the Plains with a reputation for being an offensive guru, certainly has been impressed with what he’s seen.

“Stetson is a winner,” he said of the Bulldogs’ senior quarterback. “He makes plays; he’s plenty fast enough to run the ball; he’s plenty fast enough to scramble around and make plays; he finds the open receivers; he’s accurate; and he manages their offense really well. I don’t see a whole lot of weaknesses in his game. I think he has command of what they are doing, and he’s plenty good enough to hurt you in all the ways.”

To that, the Bulldogs could say, “just wait until we’ve got back all our weapons.”

That’s close to happening. Mitchell may not be back to full speed this week, but eventually he will be. Blaylock, a victim of back-to-back ACL tears the past two seasons, is rounding back into his freshman-starter form and caught three passes on three targets for 42 yards and a key first down against Missouri.

“It felt great to be on the field, first of all,” said Blaylock, a former 5-star prospect out of Walton High. “Making some big catches and trying to help the team out in any way possible is awesome.”

Also Saturday, the Bulldogs welcomed back world-class sprinter Arian Smith. The 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, who entered the season with a 37.6-yards-per-reception average for his career, made an unexpectedly early return from preseason ankle surgery. In limited play, he caught one pass for seven yards and ran one go-route, but was not targeted on it.

If Georgia could simply balance all that versatility with one or two go-to X receivers, it could really get something going on offense. In turn, that could improve the Bulldogs’ play on first down. That was particularly pitiful against the Tigers.

Eight of Georgia’s 11 possessions began with a gain of one yard or less, turnover or negative-yardage play. So, the Bulldogs were deplorable on first-and-10.

“I think it was a different kind of game,” Smart said of Missouri, which held Georgia under 30 points for the first time all season. “There was a lot of opportunities for one-on-ones, and you have to win some of those opportunities. If you’re in third-and-long all game, you’re not managing the sticks real well.”

Saturday against Auburn’s stout defense would be a good time to start.