Orange Bowl notes: George Pickens factoring in Georgia Bulldogs’ plans

A security guard looks on as Georgia wide receiver George Pickens walks to team practice at Barry University on Tuesday, Dec 28, 2021, in Miami Shores.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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A security guard looks on as Georgia wide receiver George Pickens walks to team practice at Barry University on Tuesday, Dec 28, 2021, in Miami Shores. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Barring further complications, Georgia’s George Pickens should be a factor for the Bulldogs in Friday’s Orange Bowl matchup against Michigan.

That’s according to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who met with reporters Tuesday for the first time since the first week of preseason camp.

Pickens, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior split end, missed all but the last two games of the regular season because of a torn ACL injury sustained in the second week of spring football practice. The Bulldogs slowly were reintegrating Pickens back into the flow on offense at the end of the season and into bowl preparation. But then he was sidelined shortly before Georgia players were dismissed for the holiday break with a reported case of COVID-19. Pickens and quarterback JT Daniels flew to Miami on Monday, two days after the rest of the team arrived. Both have rejoined the Bulldogs’ practices.

“We anticipate all of the players that we had against Alabama to be ready to play, including George Pickens,” Monken said Tuesday. “George has done a fantastic job of working to get back, to give himself a chance to play at the back end of this season. When I think back to the spring when he injured his knee and thinking, ‘Wow, what a disappointment for him and his development and for us.’ But he has done a fantastic job of trying to get back.”

It borders on miraculous that Pickens has done what he has done to this point. After undergoing surgery by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., in early April, Pickens was cleared to practice with the Bulldogs in April, just eight months later. He played a handful of plays against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale Nov. 27, finishing with one catch for five yards.

But Pickens played relatively extensively in the SEC Championship game against Alabama the next week. He had two catches for 41 yards, including a 37-yarder that set up a score in that game.

After hauling in 85 catches for 1,240 yards and 14 touchdowns, Pickens has three catches for 46 yards this season.

“There are going to be some things that he’s continued to work through, trusting the knee, obviously reps. He’s still a young player. … He’s still a young developing player, and we’re still trying to work him in and to make sure that he can help us offensively and most importantly help us win.”

Vandagriff asserting himself

Regardless of what happens the remainder of this season, next year’s quarterback competition promises to an exciting one.

Signs point toward fifth-year senior Stetson Bennett returning for a sixth season of eligibility, and there’s a good chance junior JT Daniels could decide to return as well. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have continued to recruit quarterbacks at a high level. Freshman Brock Vandagriff, a 5-star recruit when he signed last year, was redshirted this season but has continued to generate buzz in practices, especially in this month’s bowl preparations.

“I continue to hear that Vandagriff is really taking steps forward,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Rusty Mansell. “He has the best arm in that room. The ball comes out of Brock Vandagriff’s hand different than everyone in that room. JT Daniels, none of them, have the arm that Vandagriff has. You have to be able to process, accuracy, all of those things, and that has taken a little bit of time with him.

“(But) he’s a big kid. … This kid is 6-foot-3, legit. He is a dual-threat guy, can run. He has had a really good bowl practice and is starting to take those steps forward.”

As it is, Georgia also has redshirt freshman Carson Beck in the fold and 4-star signee Gunner Stockton of Rabun County enrolling in January.

The rise of Bowers

Monken was asked Tuesday when he realized the Bulldogs have somebody special in freshman tight end Brock Bowers. He said he knew it the first time he reviewed the GPS numbers of Georgia’s offensive players last spring.

UGA players are fitted with a GPS devices that affix to the back of their shoulder pads during practices and workouts. Those devices record the players’ speed every time they’re on the move.

Monken said he immediately noticed that Bowers’ “band” of slowest to fastest was “really small.” That means that anytime the 6-foot-4, 230-pound was running, it almost always was at full speed. And his full speed was higher than most, peaking at about 20 to 21 mph.

“So, right away you could see this guy is different,” Monken said. “He only knows this way to work. All he did every day was work hard. He’s going to continue to develop his skill set. He’s probably got more range than we thought. We knew he had the run-after-catch ability; we saw that on tape; they used him in the backfield out of high school. But he’s got a little more range than we thought, and he’s continued to develop as a route runner. But he works awfully hard at his craft. It’s important to him.”

Bowers has been important to Georgia. He has a team-best 47 catches for 721 yards and has scored a team-best 12 touchdowns. He has tied Terrence Edwards’ school record for TD catches in a season (11) and is two receptions away from Shannon Mitchell for most catches by a tight end in a season.

Bowers was a consensus freshman All-American.

No secrets revealed

Georgia safety Lewis Cine, one of the Bulldogs’ more animated interviewees, got a laugh when asked about what the defense was doing to address weaknesses exploited by Alabama in the 41-24 loss in the SEC Championship game.

After explaining a lot of football fundamentals, such as tracking the ball at the highest point, missed tackles, communication, Cine started to offer some details. Then he stopped himself.

“We kind of – I really can’t say,” Cine said, grinning. “I really can’t say because other teams are watching these interviews. Wait until the game, and you’ll see. That’s the most I can say.”