Kirby Smart-Clemson-skill players
Georgia wide receivers Adonai Mitchell (5) and Justin Robinson (9) celebrate a play during the Bulldogs’ scrimmage Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Mackenzie Miles/UGA)
Mackenzie Miles

Kirby Smart challenges young skill players ahead of Clemson opener

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Georgia needs young skill players to step up against Clemson

Georgia got some very good news on Monday when tight end John FitzPatrick told reporters he would be able to play in the team’s season-opening game against Clemson.

“I’m good to go,” FitzPatrick said. “I’m excited to contribute in the run game and pass game, all facets of the game.”

The fact that FitzPatrick’s potential presence would provide a significant boost to the Georgia offense should tell you the state of the injury situation at wide receiver and tight end.

Dominick Blaylock is still recovering from ACL injury he suffered in August of last year. George Pickens is out with an ACL injury of his own that he suffered back in March.

Darnell Washington then had foot surgery in August. While Kirby Smart remains optimistic the sophomore tight end could see the field, it is far from guaranteed.

Add in FitzPatrick, Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton all missed time during fall camp and it is understandable why the first question asked to JT Daniels on Monday was about the confidence he had in his options.

“We have a lot of guys first of all, a lot of guys I feel comfortable with,” Daniels said. “Just the amount of work we got in the offseason, guys missing a couple of days here, guys rolling in and out however it is. We have the rapport that we’ve been building over time. So there’s no concerns with that for me.”

Related: Georgia football injury report: Arik Gilbert update, who’s out, who’s in, what it means

The mounting injuries have forced Georgia to turn to a number of its younger pass-catching options. Because of the extra practice reps they got over the past month, expect the likes of Justin Robinson, Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey to all see the field against Clemson.

“That’s the area that I think we can grow in the most, because we have the least experience,” Kirby Smart said as he tried to spin the negatives into a positive. “We went from a really experienced receiver team, to a not very experienced receiver team.”

Related: Wide receiver Adonai Mitchell has to go through growing pains but ‘his time is coming soon’

Georgia would probably feel much better about itself if it had just one of Pickens, Washington or even Arik Gilbert fully healthy and available for the season-opener. Gilbert is still away from the team due to personal reasons.

Those absences mean a guy like freshman tight end Brock Bowers, will go from a luxury option to an absolute necessity. The Bulldogs are going to need him to make plays in the passing game that Pickens, Washington or Gilbert might have made.

There’s some confidence in Bowers following a stellar spring and fall. But Saturday will be his first career game and it’s important to keep that in mind before inflating expectations.

“I’ve just been giving Brock confidence in himself to just let him know he can go make those plays we know he can all make,” FitzPatrick said.

Bowers and Washington have drawn a lot of attention this offseason, due to their upside. Washington was a 5-star prospect in the 2020 signing class while Bowers ranked just outside the top 100 prospects in the 2021 recruiting cycle.

FitzPatrick didn’t have the same level of hype entering college. He was a low 4-star recruit in the 2018 cycle and didn’t really play a role in the Georgia offense until his third year on campus.

But the junior from Atlanta has very clearly carved out a role in the Georgia offense. Perhaps even more importantly, there’s a real trust between FitzPatrick and Daniels.

“Having a guy that you know where he’s going to be, you know that he knows all of his assignments, you know he’ll fix something that you don’t think about -- not everything comes in right from the sidelines sometimes, there’s a lot of variables in running an offense, and a guy like Fitz that always knows what we’re really trying to do is a guy that plays a big role in fixing the small mistakes or miscommunications,” Daniels said. “And of course, athletically, I think he’s underrated in terms of what he can do as a pass catcher and as a blocker. I’m excited to see what Fitz can do this year.”