Overlook Georgia’s Ladd McConkey at your own peril

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

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

ATHENS – At the interview podium, Ladd McConkey is as unassuming as football players come. Trotting onto the field in his No. 84 Georgia uniform, he might be the least intimidating of all the dressed-out Bulldogs.

But between the sidelines after the whistle is blown, ignore him at your own peril. Opponents best be aware of McConkey’s location at all times. If not, they’ll be watching him from behind after he zips past them with the ball in his hands.

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Entering Saturday’s SEC Championship game against LSU (4 p.m., CBS), McConkey shares the team lead for receptions with tight end Brock Bowers, with 46. He has 606 yards receiving. He ranks fourth on the team in touchdowns (6). Those scores have averaged 24 yards in length.

So, yes, Year 3 of the Ladd McConkey Experiment seems to going quite well, thank you.

Remember, Georgia waited until six days before signing day in February 2020 to take a flyer on this small-framed athlete from Chatsworth with a scholarship offer. His 247Sports recruiting profile listed him as 6-foot, 175 pounds on signing day. Not long before that, though, he could be found there as a 5-11, 154-pound prospect.

It looked like it was going to be a real tug-of-war between Chattanooga and Kennesaw State for the services of this product of North Murray High.

But some spots opened in Georgia’s class of 2020, and that turned out to be a good thing for McConkey and the Bulldogs. He’s become an integral player on the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, which seeks to repeat as national champions.

“Tough. What he’s been is tough, man,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “He gives you work every day. He never wants to miss anything. If anything, we’ve had to overuse Ladd.”

Imagine that. A player that the Bulldogs almost didn’t sign now is one they could least do without.

In addition to functioning as Georgia’s primary slot receiver, McConkey also is the Bulldogs’ punt returner and a gunner on the punt coverage team. He’s averaging 11.6 yards on 17 punt returns. Between rushing, receiving and returning, only Kenny McIntosh has outproduced him, 1,091 yards to 923.

Meanwhile, as injuries have ravaged the position this season, McConkey has expanded his wide-receiver role to include split end and flanker. A former quarterback in high school, he’s the Bulldogs’ go-to man on reverses and jet sweeps. Along with the versatile threat that is Georgia’s tight end group, McConkey has helped make Todd Monken’s offense into a multidimensional nightmare for opposing defenses.

Just ask Mississippi State. Defenders took their eyes off McConkey for only a second and then watched him sprint untouched up the left sideline for a 70-yard touchdown.

“Once we find that rhythm, I feel like it’s hard to stop us,” McConkey said of the Georgia offense. “I mean, we have so many playmakers that can make plays, we have some great calls. Once that happens, it just kind of builds on top of that.”

McConkey’s production this season is not a revelation. It’s old news. He proved himself and then some as a redshirt freshman starter for the national champions last season. He finished with 31 catches for 447 yards and five touchdowns, which was second on the team.

But there have been some struggles this year. It seems almost like ancient history now, but the season didn’t get off to the best of starts for McConkey. The third-year wideout had some uncharacteristic drops early.

It seemed to snowball against Kent State in Game 4. McConkey muffed a punt return, fumbled the ball away after a pass reception and dropped a pass in the end zone for a would-be touchdown. The three miscues all occurred within the first 18 minutes of play in an uncomfortably close first half against an overmatched opponent.

Encouraged by coaches and teammates, McConkey simply did what he always has done: He went to work. He stayed after practice for the next few weeks, working with receivers coach Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s quarterbacks and sometimes just him and the Jugs machine.

“It was really just not locking in, not seeing (the ball), maybe trying to do a little too much before I caught it,” McConkey said. “So, just getting back to the basics. You can’t do anything without the ball in your hands. I just focused in and locked in on securing the ball first.”

At this point, McConkey is back to being Mr. Reliable for the Bulldogs. That’s a crazy place to be considering where this journey started.

It began as a slightly built, afterthought signee in a receivers room full of former 5-stars that included George Pickens, Demetris Robertson, Dominick Blaylock and Jermaine Burton. To no one’s shock, McConkey redshirted as a freshman.

As it turned out, that circumstance provided all the fuel McConkey would need for ascension. Playing on the scout team, Georgia’s defenders were first to notice McConkey’s skill. Soon, his coaches took notice.

“Seeing those guys that were on the field my freshman year, watching how much fun they were having, like, how exciting it is to play out there, that’s kind of what drove me to want to get out there and do it,” McConkey said. “‘Cause, I mean, nobody wants to practice all week and not play. It’s hard. That’s just some of the struggles you have to go through as a young guy. A lot of guys don’t want to do that.

“But if you put your head down and grind and listen to what everyone has to say and keep doing the little things right, I feel like it eventually pays off for you.”

It certainly has for McConkey, and for the Bulldogs as well.