ATHENS — Kirby Smart went from relatively slim pickings last February to landing George Pickens on the 2019 National Signing Day.
It was a 5-star flip from Auburn to Georgia that sent shockwaves across the nation.
Pickens’ talent and potential are such that his decision continues to register and factors heavily into the Bulldogs’ championship hopes moving forward.
“Air Raid” expert Todd Monken has taken over as offensive coordinator, so it’s a good bet the pass game will be emphasized more than ever.
It’s also safe to assume a healthy Pickens will be “The Guy,” regardless of how Monken draws things up. Routes, schemes, picks and plans will be made with No. 1 in mind.
Whoever is at quarterback and across the field as defensive coordinator, they will know where Pickens is lined up on every play.
An example of such came a couple of months ago, when Pickens entered the SEC Championship Game intent on helping his team rally from a 17-3 halftime deficit.
Then-LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the Tigers’ defensive backs were ready and waiting for Pickens. Aranda revealed to DawgNation there were special plans in place specifically designed to ensure Pickens didn’t spark the pass game.
“We had to make sure we pressed him,” Aranda, now the Baylor head coach, said in New Orleans last month. “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 still managed four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown in the second half, even with LSU zeroed in on him en route to the 37-10 win.
Matt Rhule might have been the most sought-after NFL head coaching candidate in December. But it certainly wasn’t because of the new Carolina Panthers’ head coach’s ability to oversee Baylor’s defensive preparations for the Sugar Bowl.
Pickens had 11 catches for 165 yards and a TD — at halftime — of the Bulldogs’ 26-14 win over the then-No. 7-ranked Bears.
“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 MO coming into it, was to get the ball to him. They continued to do that.”
LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., a consensus All-American, had enough matchups with Pickens to form an opinion.
“He’s probably up with the best that I’ve ever guarded,” Stingley told DawgNation.
That’s saying a mouthful, considering Stingley practices against LSU Biletnikoff winner JaMarr Chase and faced projected first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs lll of Alabama.
Pickens had impressed teammates immediately last fall. Safety Richard LeCounte compared him to Georgia and NFL all-time great A.J. Green after a handful of practices.
“He has quickness off the line, he has speed, his route-running is amazing, and he has good ball skills,” Stingley said. “He’s a well-rounded receiver. He’s able to go up and make the play in the end zone.”
Stingley didn’t recall Pickens doing any talking on the field, and neither did LSU nickel Cordale Flott.
“Yeah, he talks more with his actions on the field,” Flott said. “He can really play. He’s got good ball skills, his length at wide receiver makes it hard for DB’s to cover. Other than that, he’s just a great athlete.”
Pickens led Georgia with 49 catches for 727 yards and 8 touchdowns, all team highs. Pickens’ 8 TD catches were tops among Power 5 conference true freshman receivers, and his 727 yards were second.
Pickens will likely be penciled in as a preseason All-SEC selection, and he’s already drawn enough to be among players with Heisman Trophy odds.
This, even though he served two half-game suspensions last season. The first was unannounced, as Pickens missed the first two quarters of the win over Georgia Tech on account of an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Pickens’ second suspension, however, made national headlines and put a dent in the Bulldogs’ College Football Playoff hopes. Pickens’ third-quarter scuffle with the Yellow Jackets led to him being suspended for the first half of the SEC title game.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart and former quarterback Jake Fromm rallied around Pickens, offering public support even as the Bulldogs’ hopes of winning were greatly diminished.
“We’re going to help George, we’re going to help him grow up,” Smart said. “We’re going to help him make better decisions so he can help our team.”
Fromm was in lockstep.
“We’re going to love him,” Fromm said. “We’re going to take him under our wing, and hopefully make him better.”
Pickens, to his credit, apologized to the team and has not had any documented issues or setbacks since the Georgia Tech incident.
Indeed, at the end of a glorious program win in the Sugar Bowl, Pickens was named the game’s MVP and was brought to the postgame press conference for his first pubic interview as a Georgia Bulldog.
Many wondered: What would this emotionally charged football player say just minutes removed from the heat of battle with no prior experience on account of Smart’s freshman restrictions.
Pickens, as entertaining as he is intense, according to teammates and coaches, simply pledged to get better.
“I’ve still got growing to do, but I can kind of tell myself that I’m improving every day,” Pickens said. “It was a great season to me. You win some, you lose some.
“But I feel like every day, every practice, every walk-through, we just fought. I like winning that way instead of winning the easy way out. I like fighting for the win.”
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LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.