While Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel all announced their decision to return to Georgia for their senior season, one dynamic player will be missing from the 2017 Bulldogs. Junior wide receiver and punt return specialist Isaiah McKenzie decided to declare for the NFL draft after Georgia’s Liberty Bowl victory over TCU.
As Dan Mathews points out in his Gridiron Now article:
With McKenzie leaving, Georgia not only loses an explosive playmaker, but 44 catches for 633 yards and seven touchdowns worth of production, too. For the Bulldogs this season, all of those figures were team highs in receiving by some margin.
The next closest receiver was sophomore Terry Godwin with 38 receptions for 397 yards but no receiving touchdowns. Replacing McKenzie’s production on offense at receiver will not be an easy task, but the Bulldogs will also have to find a way to replace the Human Joystick on special teams. All McKenzie did in 3 years was return 5 punts back to the houses including a kickoff return for 6 special teams touchdowns over his college career.
There are several candidates for the job at receiver, though. Terry Godwin stands out as a possible top contender. Could he make a similar jump his junior season in 2017 at wideout that McKenzie did in 2016? Perhaps, senior receiver Javon Wims or sophomore Riley Ridley? Could someone like sophomore Tyler Simmons, who saw little playing last season explode onto the scene? Or maybe one of the incoming freshmen receivers like Jeremiah Holloman will answer the call? What about a tight end?
Isaac Nauta had a freshman All-American, All-SEC type season last year with 29 receptions for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns. That is the most receptions by a TE since senior Arthur Lynch reeled in 30 balls for 459 yards and 5 touchdowns, and it is the most by a freshman TE since Orson Charles caught 23 for 374 yards and 3 touchdowns. The “Iceman” looks to be on the verge of becoming a superstar. Then there is fellow tight end Charlie Woerner who battled through injuries last season, but when he was on the field, we saw glimpses of the player he could be.
One player not often talked about enough as a receiver that has a similar ability to make players miss and turn a short pass into a big play anytime he touches the ball, is rising senior tailback Sony Michel. While he certainly can hurt teams running the ball between the tackles or off-tackle, he is equally deadly catching the ball out of the backfield or from the slot-receiver position. Michel has caught over 55 passes for 525 yards and 5 touchdowns in his 3 years at UGA.
Georgia is likely to find a receiver or two or three to replace Isaiah McKenzie’s production on offense, but I think his impact as a punt returner on special teams will be much more difficult to replace. Will we finally get to see highly touted Elbert County High School 2016 prospect Mecole Hardman Jr. back returning punts or kicks? He did have one kick return for 17 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette last season, but outside of special teams and some mop up time, we didn’t get to really see a lot of the freshman. Terry Godwin has only returned two kickoffs in his college career; although, he did have a kick return for a TD off an onside kick versus South Carolina last year. Could we see someone like Tyler Simmons in that role as he certainly has the speed to be a weapon in that area or maybe one of the incoming freshmen like running back D’Andre Swift or defensive back Richard LeCounte, who like Mecole Hardman, has a knack for doing special things with the ball in his hands. Punt returner and kick return are perhaps and even bigger question marks than wide receiver going into the 2017 season.