Isaiah McKenzie’s departure could be a big one for Georgia

Isaiah McKenzie finished his Georgia career with 17 touchdowns, via receiving, rushing, kick and punt return.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The exchange with Isaiah McKenzie in which he announced he was leaving Georgia began rather awkwardly. By this point, every other key junior had announced he was staying, so McKenzie was just asked if he was, too.

“No, I’m declaring,” he said.

Awkward silence.

“You are?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Are you serious that you are declaring for the draft?”

“Yes.”

It finally became apparent that McKenzie was dead serious. And while the receiver and kick returner was not on the front of many minds lately when it came to the NFL draft, here’s the thing:

It has the potential to be a very key loss for Georgia’s offense, and special teams.

He was Georgia’s leading receiver. He holds the school record for punt return touchdowns and total return touchdowns.

No player this year was better with the ball in space. Not Nick Chubb, not Sony Michel, not Isaac Nauta or any other wide receiver. It was McKenzie. Read the following stat and let it sink in: McKenzie averaged 11.9 yards every time he touched the ball on offense in his career.

This season, he was as important to the offense as anyone: Georgia was 6-1 in games that McKenzie scored a touchdown. It was 2-4 when he didn’t. The game in which McKenzie had the most touches was at Missouri, which also was the game Georgia put up the most yards this season. For all the hubbub over Chubb and Michel not getting enough carries in the Florida loss, the greater crime may have been McKenzie not getting any touches at all.

Isaiah McKenzie hangs on to the game-winning touchdown catch despite the tight coverage of Missouri’s Aarion Penton. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Without McKenzie, who becomes the go-to receiver? Terry Godwin, Riley Ridley and Javon Wims are the main candidates among returning receivers. Incoming freshmen Jeremiah Holloman, Mark Webb and Trey Blount also could help. And given his adjustment problems to cornerback, perhaps the staff will think about moving Mecole Hardman to receiver. (Hardman may also now be needed on special teams, with not only McKenzie leaving, but Reggie Davis graduating.)

None of the above have McKenzie’s speed. Who becomes the main threat in space? That’s where Michel’s decision to come back is so big — along with Chubb’s. If it were only Michel coming back, then he’d be the main back, depended on for running the ball. But with both back and presumably healthy, you can again have Chubb in the main workhorse role, with Michel spread around the field.

One of the things that did go well on offense this season was getting McKenzie the ball. He was under-utilized on offense his first two years, though some of that had to do with dependability. McKenzie’s main problem in that time frame was staying healthy — he hurt his hamstring three separate times, including once while finishing off a long touchdown catch in the G-Day game.

But he’s extremely talented. That’s always been obvious.

High school teammate, Tavarus McFadden — who went on to Florida State — was the one who called him the Human Joystick, after all. During preseason of McKenzie’s freshman year at Georgia, he made a move in a scrimmage that made then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt exclaim “Oh my Gawd!” (Dialect provided by then-quarterback Hutson Mason.)

When McKenzie was a freshman, Michel, another of his former high school teammates, predicted: “You’re going to see a lot of oohs and aahs from him.”

Georgia fans indeed did. Debate if you will the wisdom of the move, how high he’ll be drafted or if at all. But there’s no debating this point: He will not be easily replaced.

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