George Pickens' injury is a brutal blow, but don't sell your stock in the Georgia offense
A week ago, I made the case that there wasn’t anything that could really slow down the Georgia hype train this spring. I made the case that Kirby Smart’s squad had the offensive depth to overcome an injury to a key starter. Even a JT Daniels injury wouldn’t necessarily bring the Georgia hype train to a screeching halt, I argued.
Well, George Pickens tearing his ACL certainly put that theory to the test.
Georgia confirmed reports that the star receiver suffered a non-contact tear of his ACL in practice on Tuesday. They didn’t outline a timeline, though one would think the odds of Pickens seeing the field in 2021 aren’t great. If we’re doing any sort of breakdown of what the Dawgs’ season outlook is, it’s not fair to imagine Pickens being in it.
It seemed like Pickens was destined for a breakout year after an up-and-down sophomore season that closed on a high note with at quarterback. In those 4 games, Pickens had 23 catches for 373 yards and 4 touchdowns. To recap, that was 64% of his 2020 catches, 73% of his total yards and 66% of his total touchdowns (he also had 2 of his 3 career 100-yard games). There’s no denying that when Pickens got on the field with a quarterback AND an offense that could stretch the field, he looked like the 5-star guy that Georgia fans had been waiting for.
It’s a brutal blow. There’s no doubt about it. Pickens is draft-eligible, so there’s a chance we’ll never see him in a Georgia uniform again.
Having said all of that, now isn’t the time to sell your stock in the Georgia offense.
That’s not an attempt to minimize the impact of Pickens, who can stretch the field better than anyone on that roster. Georgia might not find someone who can impact the game in that exact way.
But this is where Smart’s Georgia and Mark Richt’s Georgia differ. This is where that depth can potentially prevent that championship window from closing before the season begins. It’s even different than earlier in the Smart era where he didn’t have the receiver depth needed yet.
The 2021 receiver room is in a much different place than 2018 when Jeremiah Holloman was dismissed from the team and UGA was suddenly trying to become the first team to make the Playoff without any of its top 5 receivers returning.
Dominick Blaylock returns.
So too will Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson, Demetris Robertson, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Arian Smith….and Darnell Washington, James Cook, John FitzPatrick, Brock Bowers, Justin Robinson, Jackson Meeks, Adonai Mitchell, Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton https://t.co/gpcdqhmL0g
— Radi Nabulsi (@RadiNabulsi) March 24, 2021
It’s easy to forget that as great as Pickens was down the stretch after working through some early season injury/discipline/quarterback issues, Kearis Jackson was the team’s leading receiver. I already laid out why I thought Jackson could make a bigger impact than any UGA receiver, including Pickens pre-injury.
It seemed like all the attention centered on Pickens’ inevitable improvement with a full offseason with Daniels in Todd Monken’s high-octane offense. What was lost in the shuffle was that Jackson would also get that opportunity. Sure, he might be more of the possession receiver, but why couldn’t Jackson and those next-level hands become the ultimate safety valve for Daniels? He still can be that guy even without Pickens.
And what about Jermaine Burton? He’s the elite route-runner who has been better than Pickens at consistently getting separation. In Year 2, his role just got a lot bigger, but is he capable of filling it? Absolutely. It was Burton who stole the show with that 197-yard, 2-touchdown game in Daniels’ debut against Mississippi State:
➖ 8 Rec
➖ 197 Rec Yds
➖ 2 TDs
Jermaine Burton is ballin’ 🐶 pic.twitter.com/kJxoZxb3Vv
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 22, 2020
By the way, that’s where Pickens usually thrives — deep down the sideline in a 1-on-1 matchup (PFF had 92.8% of Pickens’ snaps coming on the outside). Burton can line up on the outside and in the slot. We saw in the MSU game that he can beat 1-on-1 coverage on the outside, and he can find the soft spots in zone coverage.
Burton’s Year 2 bump will now be magnified. So will the Year 2 bumps for the lightning quick Arian Smith — he hauled in a 55-yard bomb from Daniels in the Peach Bowl — and the promising Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, who saw his freshman season cut short because of an injury.
Dominick Blaylock technically isn’t a Year 2 guy, but he may as well be after he suffered a season-ending injury before his 2020 even started. That was after his promising freshman season ended — he was second on the team with 5 receiving touchdowns — with a knee injury in 2019.
None of this is news to Georgia fans. At least it shouldn’t be. Neither is the fact that former 5-star tight end Darnell Washington is also expected to make a Year 2 jump after he ended his true freshman season with the 2 biggest games of his young career.
And oh, just in case you forgot, you could make the case that Georgia’s got the deepest backfield in America with Zamir White, James Cook (also an excellent pass-catcher), Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards, all of whom had PFF grades north of 78.8. If you ignore the snap minimum, those grades were all higher than likely preseason first-team All-SEC back Isaiah Spiller.
Again, the skill-player depth is there in spades. It’s not like Pickens’ injury is suddenly going to vault true freshmen skill players into key roles. It’s different than 2008 when part of the hype surrounding Georgia’s offense was tied to true freshman A.J. Green, though he turned out to be worth that excitement.
Would it have been fun to watch Pickens play in this offense in his pre-draft year? Of course. Even someone like myself who wasn’t as high on his potential because the route-running wasn’t at that level yet still thought he couldn’t have asked for a better situation to step into in 2021.
We know if Georgia’s offense doesn’t take flight, the great “what if” will be Pickens. At least it will be for some. It’ll be seen as an excuse, even for a team still loaded with blue-chip talent at the skill positions.
It shouldn’t be. Georgia’s offense should still have those expectations. If this isn’t the Dawgs’ year to end the drought, something has gone wrong.
Hold up. I didn’t mean the national title drought. I meant the 7-year drought without a top-40 passing offense. That’s the entire post-Aaron Murray era. Even a Pickens-less Georgia offense is more than capable of doing that.
Wednesday’s news was a hard pill to swallow for the Dawgs. Maybe expectations changed. Perhaps the hype train let its foot off the gas. Pickens was and is a household name in the sport, and he could’ve been an even bigger one in 2021.
But the sky isn’t falling in Athens. Clearer skies await.