ATHENS — After Isaiah Crowell scored on a 15-yard run to give Georgia a 35-31 lead over South Carolina this past Saturday, everybody ran up to congratulate Crowell as soon he came to the Bulldogs’ sideline.
Everybody, that is, but Mark Richt. The Bulldogs’ head coach made a bee line for Michael Bennett and engulfed the big wide receiver in a bear hug.
“I was happy for the run Isaiah made, too,” Richt explained this week. “But I grabbed that kid [Bennett] and gave him a big hug because that was a heck of a play he made.”
The play to which Richt refers was Bennett’s catch on third and one at the South Carolina 28. Bennett’s number was called on a slant pattern and he pulled off an amazing shoe-top grab off a deflection for a four-yard gain and a Georgia first down. Two plays later Crowell notched the go-ahead score around right end.
“After watching it on film I thought that was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” Richt said. “Especially considering how important it was at that moment. It’s third down and if we don’t make it we might be deciding to kick a field goal. He makes it, then we go score.”
“It was an unbelievable catch,” quarterback Aaron Murray echoed. “It hit one guy’s helmet and I thought, ‘oh, no, it’s an incompletion.’ I didn’t even think he caught it at first. I thought it hit the ground. It was unbelievable the way he adjusted to the ball. Pretty nice.”
As surely no one has forgotten, Georgia ended up losing the game anyway. But it wasn’t because of the wide receivers, a unit that entered the season as one of the Bulldogs’ question marks. It was a group about which many were still unsure after the season-opening loss to Boise State where some critical drops contributed to the outcome.
But all along, Georgia coaches and players maintained that the infusion of young talent at the wideout position was significant. Fans are now getting a glimpse heading into the season’s third week.
Bennett, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound redshirt freshman from Alpharetta, had two other catches this past Saturday, including a 19-yard scoring grab in which he dodged one defender and broke another tackle. True freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads the team with eight catches for 116 yards and had a 51-yard score in the opener.
In all, five different receivers have caught passes and four have recorded touchdowns.
“I’ve been very impressed,” Richt said. “There is a toughness about them that I really like. Sometimes it takes time to get a guy tough enough to play the game the way it should be played and get after it they way he should get after it. I really think these guys showed up with some physical and mental toughness that I really like.”
Georgia was in dire need of some moxie at receiver. After losing A.J. Green and Kris Durham to the NFL, the Bulldogs had no proven play-makers beyond Tavarres King, who had 27 catches for 504 yards.
But King said he knew this summer what Georgia had in these young wideouts.
“I called it,” King said this week. “I said guys like Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett were going to step up and be huge contributors for us. They have been, thus far.”
Actually, the Bulldogs realized they had an exceptional receiver in Bennett last fall when he redshirted. Richt said Bennett was good enough to play last season. But with Green and Durham in the fold and already established, it seemed prudent to redshirt Bennett.
I’ve been excited about him since last season when he was out there making plays as a scout teamer,” Murray said. “He has all the abilities and he’s a big strong kid who works hard.”
Bennett played his way into the six-player rotation at wideout in preseason camp. He did not have a catch in the season opener, so he was especially anxious to contribute against the Gamecocks.
“I think [redshirting] helped me a lot,” said Bennett, who had had 1,084 yards offense as a senior at Alpharetta High. “I knew I was going to play this year. So whenever you go out there on that field you know you’re going to have to make plays. That’s the only way to get playing time.”
Bennett said he was taken aback when he was embraced by Richt on the sidelines.
“That was a real cool moment,” he said. “I can’t even remember what he said I was so zoned out. But I just remember saying I love you and he said I love you, too. It was a cool moment to impress him like that.”
King says you can expect more such moments from the young guys.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think the nervousness and all is out of there. The jitters are out. They know what it’s like to play between the hedges in front of a huge crowd in an extremely intense game. I think all of that is out of there and they’re ready to roll now.”