ATHENS, Ga. -- Such is life in football that when a player is injured, his teammates can’t afford to dwell on his absence for too long and the next man in line must step in to take his place.
For the first time this season, Georgia’s players dealt with such a scenario on Wednesday when they learned that Michael Bennett -- the team’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns -- will miss the rest of the fall after tearing his right ACL at the end of Tuesday’s practice.
“Michael getting hurt was just a very sad thing,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose fifth-ranked Bulldogs face No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday. “We were having quite a good practice yesterday. It was the very last play and I was thinking what a good day it was, what a good practice it was and then that happened.”
Bennett was blocking cornerback Devin Bowman when his knee buckled and popped audibly. Although he was able to walk off the practice field as coaches and teammates gathered for the end of practice, a post-practice MRI confirmed the UGA training staff’s fears that Bennett would miss the rest of the season after already surpassing his 2011 production in the first five games of 2012.
“I saw him go down, but then he got up and started walking and everybody thought it was going to be all right,” senior receiver Marlon Brown said. “I told him to call me that night and he called me and told me what happened. It just [stinks] for him.”
Although Richt said Bennett’s absence will be costly because of the toughness and work ethic he helped instill in the team, he and the Bulldogs can take solace that receiver is one of the deeper positions on the roster. Brown (68) and Tavarres King (61.4) both rank in the top to in the SEC in receiving yards per game. And other wideouts like Malcolm Mitchell, Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley have performed well in big games.
Richt said Mitchell -- who spent most of his time at cornerback this season prior to Saturday’s win against Tennessee after totaling 665 receiving yards last season -- will continue to be available on defense. And he is not ready to burn freshman Blake Tibbs’ redshirt yet, either.
“I think we’re still going to be fine,” Richt said.
But Bennett’s injury obviously means there will be greater opportunities available to other wideouts. Now they realize it’s up to them to ensure that there is no drop-off at their position.
“His presence will be missed, but I feel like the guys know that we’re able to make a lot of plays in different ways,” Conley said. “And so yeah, my job is to be ready whenever I get an opportunity and I feel like all the guys have taken that and we’re focusing on what we can do to defeat South Carolina. We feel like we’re going to be able to attack them in the passing game.”
Bulldogs like ‘em big: Among the six players listed on the two-deep at South Carolina’s three receiving positions, four are 5-foot-9 or shorter. That’s a big change from previous seasons when 6-foot-4 Tori Gurley and 6-3 Alshon Jeffery were the Gamecocks’ top wideouts -- and it’s a change that probably wouldn’t occur at Georgia.
Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said Georgia’s staff does not look to recruit receivers of varying skillsets -- some big, some with good hands, some fast, some tall -- who might complement each other.
“I’d say it’s more best available player. Not necessarily saying we want this guy or this guy,” Bobo said of Georgia’s recruiting strategy. “You want the ultimate -- they’re big and they’re fast and they’re quick. But is everybody going to be an A.J. Green type? No, but if they’ve got speed and they’ve got quickness, and they don’t have great speed but they’ve got big size, then usually you’ll go with a guy like that.”
South Carolina has done OK with shorter receivers -- tailback Marcus Lattimore is actually the team’s leading receiver, followed by 5-9 Bruce Ellington, 5-8 Ace Sanders and 5-9 Damiere Byrd -- but Georgia’s staff prefers larger receivers and has only two scholarship wideouts under 6-foot (5-10 Wooten and 5-11 Justin Scott-Wesley).
“[Receivers coach Tony] Ball likes big wideouts so we’ve got a tendency to recruit bigger guys, but I think there’s room for [others],” Bobo said. “You can’t have too many -- in my opinion, our philosophy -- you can’t have too many small guys on your football team. But you can have one or two, just in general. The bigger the better.”
Rivalry changes for Commings: There was a time when Georgia cornerback and Augusta, Ga., native Sanders Commings got caught up in the SEC East rivalry between Georgia and South Carolina.
He says he’s too old for that noise now.
“When I was a freshman, I would say I think I was more into the whole rivalry thing,” said Commings, who was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week after intercepting two fourth-quarter passes last Saturday against Tennessee. “Now that I’m a senior I think I know what’s more important is just winning the game, not worrying about what all the fans worry about.”
Nonetheless, Commings would like to end Georgia’s two-game losing streak against South Carolina simply to be able to enjoy quieter trips home to Augusta, which rests on the Georgia-South Carolina border.
“Every time I go back home, all my friends that are South Carolina fans, they’re like, ‘We got y’all again,’ ” Commings said. “Like I said, this is my last year and if I can just beat them, then I’ll be done with that and won’t have to hear it anymore.”