For powerhouse programs like Alabama and Clemson the last couple of seasons, freshman wide receivers have played significant roles for their teams.
Calvin Ridley finished with 1,045 yards and 7 touchdowns as he helped lead Alabama to a national title in 2015. Just last year, Clemson freshman Justyn Ross took a blow torch to the Alabama and Notre Dame secondaries, as he finished the two College Football Playoff games with a combined 14 catches for 301 yards and 3 touchdowns.
For the first time under Kirby Smart, Georgia has incoming wide receivers whose recruiting rankings matchup with that of Ridley and Ross. Ridley was a 5-star prospect, while Ross was a top-50 overall prospect. And in 2019, Georgia has not just one but two freshman wide receivers who fit that mold.
When Smart spoke about incoming freshmen receivers George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock this spring, you could tell he was excited about what they could bring to the Georgia football program. Smart doesn’t often hype-up or praise his own players, but during spring practice, he lamented not having them, along with fellow freshman Makiya Tongue and graduate transfer, Lawrence Cager.
“You wish they were here now, but the way college football works with guys getting here in early June, they’ll have two months of really good work to build up,” Smart said. “So whether or not they’ll be able to contribute this year, I don’t know that we know that.”
But Georgia now needs its freshman wide receivers to contribute in a meaningful way this season following the dismissal of wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman. He was expected to be the team’s No. 1 receiver this season after a promising 2018. With Holloman no longer on the team, Georgia will turn to the likes of Tyler Simmons, Demetris Robertson and a host of others to fill the void.
And you can very much include Pickens and Blaylock in that discussion.
Pickens is a 5-star prospect from Alabama powerhouse Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala. The long-time Auburn commit flipped to Georgia on National Signing Day. From a recruiting ranking standpoint, he’s the most talented player Georgia has landed in a decade, as the last time the Bulldogs signed a 5-star wide receiver was back in 2009 (Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin were both listed as athletes by recruiting services).
Blaylock just narrowly missed that same 5-star status, but he was still rated as a top-40 overall player in the 2019 recruiting rankings. He is the second-highest rated receiver Georgia has signed in the past decade, behind only Pickens. Blaylock did just about everything for his Marietta, Ga. based Walton High School last season, as he racked up 18 receiving and rushing touchdowns. Blaylock committed to Georgia in July of 2017 and never once wavered from his pledge.
Pickens is a bigger-bodied wide receiver, so the 6-foot-3 pass catcher might be better suited to fill Holloman’s outside role right away. He isn’t exactly a burner, but Pickens has no problem getting open and making huge plays in the vertical passing game. As a high school senior, he finished with 69 catches for 1,368 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“We know George is going to fit what we did,” Smart said. “He really was intrigued by the fact that we had the guys come out early, and he knew that he fit in our style system. And we think he’s a talented player that we’re looking forward to working with.”
Blaylock isn’t as big as Pickens, but he’s a dynamic athlete at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. Blaylock played all over the field in high school taking snaps at wide receiver, running back and even some quarterback. Smart has already mentioned the possibility of Blaylock being a factor in the return game, despite him not arriving on campus until May.
Some might think that Blaylock’s smaller stature might keep him in the slot position early on. But Smart rebuffed the idea that Blaylock will be limited as a freshman.
“We think Dom can play all three spots, slot and both outside,” Smart said. “He’s very bright and intelligent. He picks up things well. We think he’s going to help in the return game, too. But it’s not like we’re sitting there going, ‘He’s a slot receiver.’ We think he can play all of them.”
When speaking at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas back in January, Blaylock hoped that he could come in and earn a starting spot right away. Given Georgia’s current wide receiver situation, it might need him to follow through on that statement right away.
Under Smart, Georgia hasn’t frequently targeted freshmen in the passing game. The only freshman to ever catch more than 20 passes in a season under Smart — entering his fourth season as Georgia’s head coach — was tight end Isaac Nauta back in 2016 when he caught 29.
Only one freshman wide receiver has caught more than 10 passes while playing for Smart and that was Riley Ridley with 12 back in 2016. That number will have to be much higher for Pickens and Blaylock if Georgia is going to achieve its goal of winning a national championship this season.
The numbers are a little better when you look at how offensive coordinator James Coley used freshman wide receivers in his three seasons as Miami’s offensive coordinator from 2013-15. Stacy Coley finished with 33 catches for 591 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2013, while Braxton Berrios finished with 21 catches for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2014.
Expectations were already high for Pickens and Blaylock this season, based on largely on their potential. The hope by many was that they’d maybe contribute in a small way before blossoming late in the season — like Ross did for Clemson in 2018.
But now with Holloman out of the picture, Georgia might need one of Pickens or Blaylock to put up a season closer to Ridley’s freshman campaign, where it was obvious early on he was going to be a major problem for opposing secondaries.
In the movie Friday Night Lights, the talented running back Boobie Miles says, “Hype is something that is not real. I’m all real.” In 2019, Pickens and Blaylock must now be more than just hype machines. With Holloman no longer Georgia’s No. 1 target, Jake Fromm is going to need Pickens and Blaylock to be real receiving options as freshmen.
Fortunately for Georgia, Pickens and Blaylock have the pedigree and talent to put up meaningful numbers as freshmen.
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