ATHENS — When Georgia coach Mark Richt offered Alpharetta High wide receiver Michael Bennett a scholarship in the summer of 2009, Bennett resisted the urge to accept on the spot.
“I felt like that might seem a little desperate,” Bennett said with a laugh this week. “So I gave it a few days.”
Georgia was the first — and as it turned out the only — SEC school to offer Bennett a scholarship. Richt made the offer on the spot after watching Bennett, who was about to enter his senior year of high school at the time, catch passes against some of the Southeast’s top cornerback prospects during a camp on the UGA campus. The skills Richt saw that day are becoming apparent to all.
After redshirting as a UGA freshman in 2010 and showing considerable promise in 2011, Bennett has emerged as the Bulldogs’ most productive receiver in the early stages of this season. Through three games, he leads the team in catches (17) and receiving yards (265).
Two weeks ago, he had a career-high eight catches against Missouri. Last week, he had a career-high 110 receiving yards against Florida Atlantic, including a career-long 67-yard touchdown catch.
The recruiting services ranked the 6-foot-3 Bennett as a three-star prospect in high school. But when he attended the “Mark Richt Camp” in Athens in June 2009, a number of four- and five-star defensive backs were on the field with him.
“It was actually a camp where we felt we had gotten some of the better cover cornerbacks to come and participate, some kids from around the Southeast,” Richt recalled. “We were really anxious to see what those guys could do. And then Michael Bennett showed up and started whipping ’em.”
During a camp lunch break, as Richt remembers it, the Georgia coach mentioned to his staff that the kid from Alpharetta made an impression on him during the morning session. He told his assistants to keep an eye on Bennett in the afternoon session and to continue testing him by matching him up against the best defensive backs because “we might offer this kid.”
“Sure enough, the second half of the camp, he continued to do what he did the first half,” said Richt, who recalled being impressed by Bennett’s route-running, hands, toughness, competitiveness and size. “So at the end of the camp, we offered him.”
Bennett remembers every detail of that day, from the weather (“real hot”) to Richt’s brief hesitation before offering.
“Coach Richt came up to me and was, like, ‘I don’t know if we’re ready to offer you yet,’” Bennett said. “I was, like, ‘Here we go again.’ My dad and I were kind of disappointed.”
Richt stepped away to consult with an assistant coach.
“He came back 30 seconds later and was, like, ‘All right, we’re going to offer you,’” Bennett said. “I was just, like, ‘Oh my gosh, those are the best words ever.’”
A few days later, Bennett committed to Georgia. At that point, he also had offers from Big Ten schools Wisconsin and Indiana, among others, but “I kind of wanted to stay close to home.”
In the three-plus years since, Bennett “has muscled up” and “gotten even better at what he does,” Richt said. “He likes every aspect of the game. He blocks well. He catches balls in traffic. We’ve seen him go deep a couple of times. Last year, he had a couple of phenomenal catches — one against Florida on fourth down and one against Auburn early in the game [both for touchdowns]. He’s just been very reliable for us.” Oh, and he has “pretty good game speed,” Richt said.
All in all, not bad for a three-star recruit.
“I wasn’t recruited highly coming in, so I’ve always had a little chip on my shoulder,” Bennett said. “To go in and contribute like this has been a real goal of mine.”
Bennett is part of a deep group of wide receivers that has prompted Georgia to increasingly embrace four-receiver sets. Three games into the season, three different Bulldogs have posted 100-yard receiving games: Tavarres King against Buffalo (117 yards), Marlon Brown against Missouri (106) and Bennett against Florida Atlantic. Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley also are threats at wide receiver, and the position should grow stronger with the plan to expand receiver/cornerback Malcolm Mitchell’s offensive role.
Bennett is beginning to shake the label of “possession receiver,” which implies a lack of breakaway speed.
“He definitely hates that label,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said.
Said King: “He’s going to be great before he leaves here.”
– Tim Tucker
COVERAGE LEADING UP TO GEORGIA-VANDERBILT GAME: