Isaiah McKenzie off to a record start for Georgia but needs help
Alongside Jacob Eason’s emergence, junior receiver Isaiah McKenzie has been the highlight of Georgia’s offense. In fact, he’s on pace to set the school’s single-season receiving record.
Through the Bulldogs’ first three games, McKenzie has 18 receptions for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns. Over the course of the team’s 12-game schedule, McKenzie projects to have 72 receptions for 1,220 yards and 16 touchdowns.
If he reaches those totals, McKenzie will have broken Terrence Edwards’ single-season receiving records in yards (1,004 in 2002) and touchdowns (11 in 2002), and he will be a close second to Brice Hunter’s mark in receptions (76 in 1993).
That’s a testament to his emergence as the Bulldogs’ go-to receiver this season, but it also highlights some problems for Georgia moving forward.
Let’s start with McKenzie, himself. Primarily a player used to create mismatches in select packages throughout his career, McKenzie had only caught 16 passes for 190 yards before this season. He’s already blown past those numbers in only three games, but how long will he be able to keep up the pace?
The 5-foot-8, 175-pound receiver is as shifty as they come, but he was targeted a whopping 17 times against Missouri. He also ran the ball twice and handled two punt returns. All told, McKenzie stood to touch the ball 21 times Saturday, which is a number usually only approached by running backs who are 60 pounds heavier.
McKenzie’s heavy workload doesn’t appear to be out of design, but rather the result of Eason’s comfort level with him. It’s something the coaching staff wants to reign in, however.
“We need to get him looking in the right places,” Kirby Smart said of Eason after the Missouri game. “There are a lot of times where he is throwing the ball to the wrong place. Even that last drive a couple times, Isaiah was tired or winded and we have to get him out of there, and he kept throwing fade balls to him.”
Basically, if McKenzie is out on the field, there is a good chance that Eason will be looking his way. Through the first three games, that has worked to Georgia’s favor, and it certainly paid off when he delivered that crucial fourth-down strike in the end zone.
Isaiah McKenzie : 10 catches, 122 yards & 2 TD's (Game-winning 20-yard TD catch with 1:29 left in the game) pic.twitter.com/5XdO5b4ngY
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) September 18, 2016
Still, the Bulldogs need other players to step up and help shoulder the load. With a young quarterback, that becomes both harder and more necessary at the same time.
On the road in the SEC, Eason will go where he feels comfortable. Right now, that is McKenzie. The team’s other receivers not only need to improve to the point where they are consistently getting open, but they need to reach a point where they have gained Eason’s trust and make him feel confident when throwing in their direction.
“We just need to do a better job of helping the receivers out by playing more guys, but the other guys need to earn it by what they do in practice,” Smart said after the game.
Many expected sophomore receiver Terry Godwin to enjoy a breakout season and emerge as the team’s top pass catcher. So far, he is a distant second to McKenzie, catching 8 passes for 138 yards. Fellow sophomore Michael Chigbu seems to be Eason’s second-favorite target, but he has dropped several balls at some crucial times.
What makes McKenzie’s situation interesting is that he operates as a slot receiver but has become Georgia’s top option. He makes up for his lack of size with his ability to change direction in an instant and his tremendous acceleration out of his cuts. Hence, the nickname: Human Joystick. Yes, he can be covered up and bullied around by bigger defensive backs, but there are few of those who are capable of matching McKenzie’s speed.
It isn’t only the numbers that show McKenzie has emerged as the go-to receiver, but also his penchant for making game-changing plays. In each game this season, it can be well-argued that McKenzie changed the outcome in the Bulldogs’ favor.
Against North Carolina, he helped Eason beat the Tar Heels’ blitz with a nice 8-yard catch on a slant route and then followed up that play with the 51-yard bomb down the right sideline to put the Bulldogs in field goal range. When Georgia temporarily fell behind against Nicholls, McKenzie revived a failing drive with a 66-yard touchdown catch and run.
His biggest play to date, however, capped his best day. The game-winning catch over Missouri’s best cornerback on fourth down sealed Georgia’s come-from-behind victory and was McKenzie’s third touchdown of the evening.
“I saw that the linebackers were down the middle,” McKenzie told reporters of that final play after the Missouri game. “I had to get the corner to the middle of the field and once they called hike I said `I got to get to the middle before he does. Before he beats me there.’ That’s what I did. He threw a good pass I had to adjust and come down with it and secure it. That put us on top.”
It often takes time for players to become comfortable in their roles on a team, especially if that role is that of go-to receiver. Although he is a junior, McKenzie has never been put into this type of position before, but he’s handled it incredibly well thus far.
Georgia will need other players at the position to step up, and Eason will need to learn how to utilize all of the weapons at his disposal. Until that time comes, however, McKenzie is showing that he is more than capable of doing it all.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.