Pickens, the explosive sophomore receiver with an NFL All-Pro catch radius, has an infectious disposition that should energize the No. 9-ranked Bulldogs’ offense in their 7:30 p.m. game at South Carolina on Saturday.
Pickens, on the heels of an 8-catch, 87-yard breakout performance in the 31-24 win over Mississippi State, shared the joy the performance brought him during a Zoom call this week.
“It felt good to get back and play with the guys,” said Pickens, who tied a UGA record with 12 catches along with 175 yards in the Sugar Bowl win over No. 7-ranked Baylor.
“That’s what I like doing the most is just hanging out there and being out there with my friends.”
Pickens needs the ball to feel right with the world, that is certainly obvious to the extend that Daniels said as much after the game last Saturday.
“If you have George Pickens and Jermaine Burton,” Daniels said, “if you’re not going to throw it up to them, don’t recruit them.”
Burton, a freshman, took advantage of the extra attention Pickens’ sometimes received from the Maroon Bulldogs, torching his single coverage to the tune of 8 catches for 197 yards.
But it is Pickens who is the game-changer to the highest degree.
Defensive coordinators literally tear up their schemes and start over with Pickens in the lineup and a quarterback under center who is capable of making all the throws to maximize his talents.
Georgia badly missed Pickens in its games with Kentucky and Florida, no doubt, as he was out with a shoulder strain injury suffered during the bye week in the weight room.
“Him not being in part of the offense, it certainly affects the way the defenses play us,” Coach Kirby Smart said. “I mean look, the guys a really good player. I would be lying if I didn’t say that we didn’t see some of the same fronts and coverages when he’s not in there, in terms of when he was and how some teams played us—so that affects some things as well.”
Former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said as much when asked about defending Pickens during the press conferences leading up to the 2019 CFP Championship Game.
“We had to make sure we pressed him,” Aranda, now the Baylor head coach, said in New Orleans last January. “We had a double coverage that we saved until halftime for him.
“We had a cloud coverage, wherever he was at, that we saved until after halftime, as well.”
Pickens, suspended for the first half of the SEC Championship Game on account of a skirmish at Georgia Tech, still had four catches for 54 yards in the second half even with LSU zeroed in on him.
Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., considered one of the best defensive backs in the nation, saw enough of Pickens to form an opinion.
“He’s probably up with the best that I’ve ever guarded,” said Stingley, who practiced against LSU Biletnikoff winner JaMarr Chase and faced Alabama star receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs lll, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, formerly head coach at Baylor, admitted his Bears had made a grave mistake in the first half of the Sugar Bowl.
When we left him one-on-one, he made the plays,” Rhule said. “When we played off him a little bit, they threw it out there and he made guys miss. That had been their M.O. coming into it, was to get the ball to him. They continued to do that.”
And now Pickens is back in the mix with a quarterback accurate enough to fit the ball into the tight windows double coverage brings about, and an arm strong enough to find Pickens deep or on the perimeter.
“I feel like JT is a Cali kid, so he has a bigger arm,” Pickens said. “Basically, throwing the ball in the air, it’s not going to be too flat or too low, it’s going to get there …. “
Indeed, Daniels completed four passes of more than 40 yards after the Bulldogs had just three through their first six games combined.
Smart said he saw that out of Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis in practices, but he also said there was nothing that could replicate what reps are like in the games.
Pickens knows that better than anyone and feeds off that live game action, growing bored and irritated when not involved to the extent he squirted water on a downed Tennessee player on the sideline earlier this year, drawing a flag.
“I got in trouble for it,” Pickens said, “which is what should have happened.”
Smart said throughout last season that Pickens needed to grow and mature, and it has become clear that without football — and without getting the football — that has been a challenge.
But Pickens needs Georgia, and it’s clear Georgia needs Pickens, whose final year of eligibility could be enough to ensure Daniels returns for another season despite the recent high NFL draft projections.
The explosive offense that Smart desperately seeks appears on the horizon, a pot of gold at the end of one of Daniels’ throws, right on the edge of Pickens’ capable fingertips.