- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia isn't back to full strength on offense -- and it won't be this season -- but all of a sudden the Bulldogs look a bit more like their offensive juggernaut from the start of the season.
Entering Saturday's visit to No. 7 Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC), No. 25 Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is the healthiest it has been on offense since a disastrous visit to Tennessee when tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending knee injuries and wideout Michael Bennett suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup temporarily.
The Bulldogs will face Auburn without tight end Jay Rome, who injured his right foot in last week's win against Appalachian State, but should have starting tight end Arthur Lynch (ribs) and receiver Chris Conley (ankle) back Saturday.
“We're getting guys back, which is good, but they've also missed a lot of practice time, which on the flip side is a negative,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “So we're having to work a little harder than we may have in the past in November. But I think it's good. I think it's a confidence boost to the offense.”
Conley leads the team with 30 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, while Lynch's 15 catches for 243 yards rank fifth. But while their receiving production is obviously important, their simple presences in the lineup -- alongside players with whom they've shared so many practice and game reps -- are just as valuable.
“It definitely helps the chemistry because we went through camp all together and you kind of get that chemistry with those guys together,” said Bennett, who posted a team-high five catches in each of the two games since he returned to the lineup. “You can lose it when you've got new guys coming in. But those other guys have done a heck of a job coming in and filling in for us. But when you have those veterans come back like Artie and Conley, it definitely brings a new confidence.”
Lynch's return is well-timed, as Rome was the only other scholarship tight end who has played this season. Freshman Jordan Davis is on track to redshirt and walk-on Hugh Williams has played as a blocker, but has yet to catch a pass.
Meanwhile, Conley brings some punch back to a receiving corps that struggled during Georgia's midseason lull, when at one point they were without tailbacks Todd Gurley and Marshall and wideouts Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and Bennett. It's no coincidence that the Bulldogs lost to both Missouri and Vanderbilt during that period, or that they posted a paltry 221 yards of total offense -- including just 114 passing -- in the Vandy loss.
Conley seemed questionable at best for the Auburn game early in the week, but he was able to practice in non-contact drills on Wednesday which encouraged Bulldogs coach Mark Richt.
“I was telling the quarterback, 'He's going half-speed' or whatever, and Conley kind of ran a little faster than half-speed and snatched the ball,” Richt said. “And Bobo was looking around like, 'We ought to let him practice a little bit.' … He didn't practice the whole time, but he got some work in and he looked good. I don't think he had any setbacks.”
Richt insisted that Conley's role might still be limited should he play on Saturday, but he comes back to a group of receivers that had to look elsewhere for production during his two-game absence -- and might have found another spark in Jonathon Rumph.
The junior college transfer was sidelined by a hamstring injury throughout the first half of the season and played sparingly for the first time two weeks ago against Florida. He caught his first passes -- four of them, in fact, for 98 yards -- in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, causing Bobo to remark that he's “actually getting excited about him” earlier this week.
“I had a feeling that I knew what I was going to do, but I really didn't want to mess up,” Rumph said of his performance last week. “I focused a lot on the game plan, I knew everything I had to do and everybody on the sideline kept me lifted. The starters told me, 'All right, when you're opportunity comes, take advantage.' That's all it was, just making plays for my team.”
For the first time in more than a month, Georgia's offense has a wide array of players who seem ready to do that. The main one to watch is likely Gurley, who is still not back to 100 percent and has not been able to handle a full workload in the two games since returning from an ankle injury. But quarterback Aaron Murray clearly has more established weapons at his disposal than he has had in weeks, and that can only be a positive sign for the Bulldogs.
“The more guys you get out there that Murray feels comfortable with, I think, the better,” Bobo said.
2hSam Khan Jr.