Freshman receivers making impact

ATHENS, Ga. -- Tavarres King played third banana last year to a pair of Georgia receivers now earning NFL paychecks, A.J. Green and Kris Durham.

He knew things would be different this season with a group of talented but unproven players joining the receiver rotation, and he reminded reporters of his months-old prediction that Georgia's offense would spread it around after eight different players caught a pass last week against South Carolina.

"I called it," King said. "I said guys like Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett were going to step up and be huge contributors for us, and they have been thus far. Coming off the Boise week to the South Carolina week, I said we as a unit, myself included, had to focus all week, and we did. We focused really well all week long, and it paid off."

Georgia's receivers, King included, got off to a poor start in a season-opening loss to Boise State with dropped passes and a general failure to get open frequently enough to keep the offense moving.

Mitchell was the exception, with the fleet-footed freshman from Valdosta catching three passes for 64 yards -- including a 51-yard touchdown pass -- and rushing once for 18 yards.

Bennett stole the show last week in only his second college game, making a catch that Georgia coach Mark Richt described as "one of the best catches I've ever seen, and especially how important it was at that moment."

Georgia trailed South Carolina 31-28 in the fourth quarter when it faced third-and-1 at the Gamecocks' 28-yard line. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray tried to fit a pass to Bennett into a tight space between a group of defenders, and it looked like a probable incompletion or interception, but Bennett somehow gained control of the ball inches above the turf for a 4-yard gain and a first down.

Two plays later, Isaiah Crowell ran 15 yards for a touchdown that put the Bulldogs ahead 35-31.

"I really didn't think it was that hard of a catch, but I was watching it afterwards on ESPN and was like, 'That might've been a cool catch, I guess,' " Bennett said. "It was cool to see Coach Richt at practice [Monday] shout me out in front of the team and said it was a good catch, so that was a pretty cool moment, too."

"It was awesome," King said. "It actually grazed off a D-lineman's hat. That changed the course of the ball. When I came out of my route and I saw where Aaron was going with the ball, I was like, 'Oh crap,' and he caught it and I was like, 'Wow.' That was an amazing catch."

Richt wasn't exaggerating about his opinion of the redshirt freshman's grab. He might not have known exactly how impressive Bennett's catch was while watching it live, but he immediately understood its significance.

Georgia's coach sought out his young receiver on the sideline after Crowell's touchdown, and the two shared a special moment that was caught by ESPN's TV cameras.

"When everybody came off the field everybody is hugging Isaiah, and I was happy for the run Isaiah made, too, but I grabbed that kid and gave him a big hug because that was a heck of a play," Richt said.

"He just found me on the sidelines and gave me a hug," Bennett said. "Honestly I don't remember what he said, I was so zoned out. But I just remember saying I love you and he said he loved me, too. It was a real cool moment to impress him like that."

Bennett's stat line shows only three catches for 24 yards, but that doesn't tell the full story of his performance against South Carolina. Aside from his third-down grab, he also nabbed his first career touchdown pass -- a 19-yard catch and run that tied the score at 28 early in the fourth quarter -- and made one of the Bulldogs' top hustle plays, preventing a touchdown when he ran down Gamecocks defensive back Stephon Gilmore after he recovered a Crowell fumble and returned it 56 yards to Georgia's 5-yard line.

It was a workmanlike effort that typifies what the team expects from a receiving corps that is without superstar talent for the first time in several years.

Green was a force as soon as he arrived on campus, teaming first with Mohamed Massaquoi and later with Durham to form tandems of dangerous NFL-caliber wideouts. There may be future NFL talent within the current crop of Georgia receivers, but nobody expects them to fill Green's shoes individually.

This is a group where numerous players must contribute for the Bulldogs' passing game to click.

"We haven't had that around here in a long time," King said. "We've got five or six guys that can make a play at any time. That's not been the case in years past, but we have that here now and it's pretty awesome."

The potential breakout star of the group appears to be Mitchell.

Some recruiting analysts were divided as to whether he should play cornerback or receiver in college, but he emerged as a big play passing threat as a senior at Valdosta High School thanks to his explosive speed.

As the Bulldogs' leading receiver with eight catches for 116 yards, Mitchell is living up to the buzz he created as soon as he arrived on campus and began participating in summertime pass skeleton drills.

The same can be said for Crowell, who has been under intense scrutiny since he signed with Georgia, but already has a 100-yard outing to his credit and leads the Bulldogs with 178 rushing yards.

"Both of those guys I've been raving about since summer," Murray said. "They're both really talented kids, and they're showing it right now."

Murray is far from the only person who has noticed.

It's always a concern with freshmen, particularly freshman receivers, that they might need time to adapt to the physicality of SEC football. Bennett and Mitchell have already shown feisty competitiveness, which their coach believes will expedite their transition.

"Sometimes it takes time to get a guy tough enough to play the game the way it should be played and get after it the way he should get after it," Richt said. "I really think these guys showed up with some physical and mental toughness that I really like."

Freshmen catching praise

Michael Bennett
RFr., 6-3, 208, Alpharetta, Ga.
Teammates say Bennett could have played last season but was the victim of a logjam at his position. He made his first catch and first touchdown catches in last week's 45-42 loss to South Carolina. Bennett's acrobatic 4-yard catch on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter against South Carolina extended a drive and set up Isaiah Crowell's go-ahead touchdown run.

Malcolm Mitchell
Fr., 6-1, 184, Valdosta, Ga.
Mitchell surprised some last year when he picked Georgia over Alabama, but he sensed the opportunity to contribute early, and his intuition was correct. Mitchell leads the team with eight catches for 116 yards and caught a 51-yard touchdown pass against Boise State in his first college game.

And two more to watch

Chris Conley
Fr., 6-3, 202, Dallas, Ga.
Mitchell is the only member of the Bulldogs' four-man crop of true freshman receivers who has played thus far, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told reporters this week that Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley remain "on the bubble" to play this season. Conley enrolled at Georgia in January and participated in spring practice, so he has had the most time to learn the Bulldogs' offense.

Justin Scott-Wesley
Fr., 5-11, 218, Camilla, Ga.
Scott-Wesley was expected to redshirt this season -- and he still might -- but if the Bulldogs need another source of explosive speed, he fits the bill. The freshman from Camilla is a former state champion sprinter and is built like a brick house, not like the average freshman receiver who needs to add body mass. Physically, he could compete against college defenders right now.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.