Even if George Pickens can return to the Dawgs, should he take the risk?
My friend CP and I have known each other since we were 4-year-olds, growing up together in Athens, and we both went to the University of Georgia. We talk on the phone pretty frequently, and you can be sure that a prime subject of our conversations always is the Georgia Bulldogs.
So, when CP called at lunchtime Thursday, I knew that George Pickens would be on his mind.
Just the day before, the Dawgs’ star wide receiver had injured his anterior cruciate ligament in practice, necessitating surgery.
It turned out that, earlier Thursday, CP had run into a longtime UGA athletics official in an Athens restaurant, and they had chatted about the outlook for Pickens. As a teaser to what head coach Kirby Smart would say later that day, the official put a positive spin on the situation, telling CP that Pickens’ ACL injury was a clean tear, and that the player might be able to rehab quickly enough to return to the field at some point during the coming season.
CP wasn’t buying it.
“I think you’ve seen the last of Pickens in a Georgia uniform,” he told the athletic official.
My friend’s skepticism isn’t unfounded. First, it generally takes eight to nine months for a player to return fully from such an injury, according to Dr. James Gladstone, chief of sports medicine and associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. “You’re certainly doing things before then, but to get to the peak of your rehabilitation and to be able to get truly back out on the field and be competitive is going to be at least nine months,” Gladstone told the Athens Banner-Herald this week.
That would make it most likely that Pickens wouldn’t return until whatever bowl game the Dawgs will be playing.
Of course, it could be quicker than that. At his Zoom press conference after practice Thursday, Smart cited the case of defender Divaad Wilson, who had a similar injury in spring practice a few years back and could have played around the time of the Florida game that season, though he didn’t actually play until the bowl game. (Smart said that was because Wilson was a freshman who didn’t know the defense. Pickens, he noted, already knows Georgia’s offense well, and could play as soon as he’s physically able.)
However, the physical issues may not be the main obstacle to seeing Pickens donning his No. 1 Bulldogs jersey again.
The larger question is whether Pickens, a junior who’s eligible for the NFL draft, will want stick around and continue to take college classes, in order to put his professional future on the line by rushing back onto the field for the Bulldogs. Players who’ve rehabbed a knee are extremely vulnerable to another similar injury (ask Georgia’s Dominick Blaylock and Zamir White).
Former UGA great Matt Stinchcomb, who covers college football as an analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network, put it this way to the AJC’s Chip Towers: ““Given what they’ve experienced with Dominick Blaylock, and given what they’ve seen with Zamir White, where we’re talking about multiple knee surgeries in near succession, it is impossible for me to even contemplate Georgia being aggressive with the rehabilitation of [Pickens’] injury.”
Getting him back in time to play in even one key game at the end of the season undoubtedly would be a plus for the team, but would hurrying back be in Pickens’ best interests, physically?
And, considering the impact another possible injury could have on his draft status, would it be in his best interests, careerwise?
When it comes to questions like that, I often fall back on my fatherly instincts. What would I tell my son in that situation?
On the one hand, I’d be concerned about him trying to play too soon, both for medical reasons and because of the possible financial repercussions it could have for him.
However, in the end, I think my overriding advice would be for him to follow his heart: If he were fine, mentally, with the risks, and really wanted to finish out what’s undoubtedly his last season with his teammates, I’d be fine with him going for it.
An example of a player doing just that was Richard LeCounte, who stuck around to return to the field briefly in last season’s bowl win over Cincinnati.
Another factor: If the Dawgs are headed to the College Football Playoff at the time he’s cleared medically, will that influence Pickens’ thinking? Might he be more likely to return for a game of consequence?
So far, we don’t know where Pickens stands on any of this. Neither he nor his family have addressed his future with the Dawgs. However, as a lot of folks noted this week, the player’s only post-injury “comment” has been to post a solid black screen on Instagram with a single word in white: “Bye.”
Not exactly encouraging, but we don’t know whether that’s as final as it might appear.
Smart’s optimism and CP’s pessimism aside, is the loss of Pickens, the best receiver Georgia has had since A.J. Green, likely to be a season changer for the Dawgs? Possibly not. The first thing many fans and college football observers pointed to, in the wake of the Pickens injury, was Alabama losing star wide receiver Jaylen Waddle for much of last season, and still winning a national championship.
Of course, Bama is on a different plane of existence from the rest of college football, so I’m not sure how instructive that is.
Still, Georgia approaches this season with an experienced starting quarterback in JT Daniels, and about as fully loaded at receiver as it’s been in quite a while, even if some of that talent is returning from injury, or doesn’t have a lot of game experience. Even without Pickens, the team returns 75 percent of its catches and 74 percent of its receiving yards from last season.
Contenders to replace Pickens at the split end position include Jermaine Burton, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Justin Robinson, Arian Smith, Demetris Robertson, Jaylen Johnson, or possibly an early enrollee, like Jackson Meeks or Adonai Mitchell. An experienced ball catcher out of the transfer portal also is a possible addition to the wide receiver corps.
The coaching staff also might consider shifting one of the slotbacks, like Kearis Jackson and Blaylock, or just throwing to them more.
And, there are other reliable targets for Daniels, including running backs who also are good receivers, like James Cook and Kendall Milton, and the tight ends, including John FitzPatrick, Darnell Washington and 4-star early enrollee Brock Bowers.
Of all of those, the one who strikes me as most likely to take Pickens’ place as a real game changer is Washington, who is 6 foot, 6 inches and, according to Smart this week, has beefed up to 275 or 280 pounds. Having already shown flashes of what he can do when he was thrown to last year, Washington has the size and hands to become the sort of coverage mismatch that Florida’s Kyle Pitts was last season. “He’s a different kind of matchup guy,” Smart said of Washington.
And, as the head coach explained this week, Georgia overall has a lot of options in making up for the loss of Pickens.
“You take your best 11 football players, and you try to find ways,” he said in his Zoom conference. “That could be one back, three tight ends. That could be three backs, one tight end. That could be five wides, no backs, no tight ends. You find your best football players, and you find ways to get them the ball. That’s what I think Coach [Todd] Monken does a great job of, so he’s going to try to exploit whoever you’re playing’s weaknesses. He’s going to try to use our strengths to do that with.”
So, while losing Pickens, possibly for the entire season, is a big blow for Smart’s team, it’s certainly not an insurmountable challenge.
As the head coach summed up: “We lost a guy who’s a pretty good playmaker, but we’ve got other guys we think are good playmakers, and we’ll just find ways to get them the ball.”