ATHENS, Ga. -- As one of the most veteran members of Georgia’s football team, Rantavious Wooten has seen the dynamic shift wildly in five seasons as a member of the Bulldogs’ receiving corps.
The fifth-year senior has seen a single superstar strike fear into opposing defenses, as future first-round NFL pick A.J. Green did in Wooten’s first two seasons. He’s also seen quarterback Aaron Murray spread the passing production between a larger group of players than any quarterback has in Georgia’s 12-year history under Coach Mark Richt.
However, thanks to the wide array of receiving skillsets available and a change in position coach Tony Ball’s philosophy, where several players are learning more than just one of Georgia’s three receiving positions, Wooten believes this could become the most versatile and productive group of Bulldogs receivers in Richt’s tenure.
“It’s real good that we can sub at any position instead of being like when I first came in and it was kind of like, ‘You play this position. That’s the only position you play. So you don’t go in that spot,’ ” Wooten recalled.
“Now we have all the pieces to have a great receiving corps -- we have speed, we’ve got big guys, we’ve got quick guys, we’ve got guys that can catch over the middle, we’ve got guys that can take the short route long. So we have every part to be that versatile, plus more. And then add the fact that we can play different positions and just utilize what we have.”
Seven Georgia wide receivers -- and 11 players total, adding in tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- made at least 10 catches last season. Both were single-season highs for Georgia pass-catchers under Richt, and everyone except 2012 seniors Tavarres King and Marlon Brown returns from that group.
Among the returners: potential breakout star Malcolm Mitchell, who is now focusing solely on playing receiver after splitting time between cornerback and wideout last season, and Michael Bennett, who was leading the team with 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns through five games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Then throw in the shifty Wooten, 6-foot-3 Chris Conley -- the Bulldogs’ offensive MVP of spring practice -- sure-handed Rhett McGowan and UGA track sprinter Justin Scott-Wesley, who enjoyed his first taste of collegiate football success in the Capital One Bowl win against Nebraska. And finally add 6-foot-5 junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph, redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs and talented true freshmen Tramel Terry, Reggie Davis and Uriah LeMay.
“We all can play. I don’t think we have any real superstars,” Bennett said. “Obviously Malcolm’s kind of our breakout guy, but we don’t have like an A.J. like we used to or anything like that, or like a [King]. We all know we can play, we’re all, I think, really good, so it’s kind of like when one guy subs in and one guy goes out, there’s not going to be any hiccup.”
Collectively, every role Ball could possibly want individual players to fill in his position group is covered by the talents and body types within that group.
“It’s crazy, it really is, because we’ve got completely different playing styles,” said Mitchell, Georgia’s top returning receiver after posting 40 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns last season. “You just name myself, Michael, Conley, Wooten -- those are four different types of playing styles.”
While they are best suited for specific roles, perhaps what makes the group especially unique is that some many players will be able to handle multiple jobs, which is a departure even from last season.
For instance, Mitchell once knew how to play only one receiver position. No longer. And nearly all of his fellow wideouts know at least two of the three responsibilities between the split end, flanker and slot positions.
“I think that everyone has the confidence to run every single type of play,” Conley said. “There’s not one guy who we use deep routes, there’s not one guy who we use for short underneath routes, there’s not one guy that we use for screens. I think the fact that everyone has the confidence that ‘I can make this play and I can do something big for Georgia,’ I think that’s the most unique part about this receiver corps because anyone can be at any point on the field and everyone’s ready to run.”
With Murray back for his fourth season under center and Gurley and Marshall softening defenses for Georgia to attack with the pass, it stands to reason that Bobo will once again make use of his receiving weapons. Perhaps even more than the Bulldogs ever have under this coaching staff.
Asked whether this group’s versatility surpasses that of other receiving corps in his UGA career, Bobo recalled previous explosive groups like the one that featured Terrence Edwards, Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown in 2002. And he’s had others -- like the 2007 and 2008 offenses -- that made use of a wide array of receiving talents at wideout, tight end and out of the backfield.
This group might outrank any of them, however.
“They’re not lacking confidence. They feel they’re one of the best receiving corps in the country. Are we that? I don’t know,” Bobo said. “We don’t have the A.J. Green explosive-type player out there. I think we’ve got a bunch of very good, hard-working kids that catch the ball and are fearless and really do a good job of taking coaching from Coach Ball and have gotten better in their career.
“None of them were this guy or that guy coming out of high school. They’re guys that work and made themselves into players. … But these guys, I wouldn’t trade this group for any group that I’ve had since I’ve been here just because you’ve got so many guys that can do so much.”