For the second consecutive offseason, Terry Godwin finds himself as Georgia’s top returning receiver.

The Bulldogs have once again lost their No. 1 receiver to the NFL Draft, leaving Godwin as the player most likely to fill that void.

Until now, however, Godwin hasn’t truly taken that next step in his development and become the star receiver many believe he can be.

That could change in 2017. The early message coming out of Athens indicates that this could be the year that Godwin truly emerges as Georgia’s go-to receiver.

“I tell you, man, when you look at practice, Terry Godwin is like night and day to me to watch that kid,” Kirby Smart told reporters of the junior receiver this spring. “I was very honest last year about Terry playing tougher, playing bigger. The guy has blocked hard, he’s competed, he’s taking more reps, he’s such a better leader. I mean, to see him grown up means the world to me because I’ve seen that kid since his ninth-grade year.”

After a strong debut season in 2015, when Godwin caught 35 passes for 379 yards and a pair of touchdowns, many viewed him as a player with star potential at the position. Not since Malcolm Mitchell in 2011 had a freshman finished as the Bulldogs’ second-leading receiver.

With Mitchell off to the NFL after the 2015 season, the door was wide open for Godwin to become the type of player Mitchell was expected to be before injuries began to pile up.

In Smart’s first year as Georgia’s head coach, that didn’t happen. At various times last season, there were rumors of strife between Godwin and his coach. It appeared the sophomore receiver struggled with Smart’s demand of greater physicality and effort in the run game, which wasn’t something he was used to under Mark Richt.

Whether that noise was true or not, Godwin never seemed like a major factor in Georgia’s offense. He was steady when called upon and made some key plays throughout the fall, but his impact certainly didn’t match the lofty preseason expectations.

With 38 receptions for 397 yards and no touchdowns, Godwin’s numbers in Year 2 were extremely similar to those he produced in Year 1.

Instead, it was slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie who quickly developed chemistry with freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The agile junior enjoyed what was easily the best season of his Georgia career, and McKenzie became a true offensive weapon.

Now, it’s McKenzie who is off to try his luck at the pro level, leaving Godwin in a familiar situation. Georgia’s offense relies heavily on the slot receiver, and Godwin appears to be the man who will replace McKenzie at that position.

“I think first evidence is to look at last year,” Smart said when asked about the importance of the slot position. “Where was our leading receiver? There was a lot of production in that position. So that’s a big challenge for us.

“(Godwin’s) a vital piece to that slot. He and Jacob have great intuitive instincts. They have a great intuition of where each other is going to be.”

The stage is better set than at any other point in Godwin’s career for him to succeed. Eason has a year of experience and some of the best pure talent of any quarterback to play for the Bulldogs. On top of Eason’s ability to make plays, Georgia doesn’t have much proven depth at receiver and Godwin is easily the most established player.

Riley Ridley showed nice promise in his first season and Isaac Nauta looks like a special talent at tight end, but Godwin should have a prominent role for the Bulldogs this fall, especially if he is operating at the slot position.

The opportunity has been there for Godwin before. What makes this year different, however, is that he seems determined to take advantage of it.

“Terry is really doing a good job of being a leader and challenging those guys, a lot more so than he did at this time last year,” Smart said after the Bulldogs’ first spring scrimmage. “He’s coming into his own when it comes to work ethic.”

For the second consecutive offseason, Godwin is Georgia’s returning leader at wide receiver. For the first time, it seems he’s ready to become a go-to playmaker.

William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden