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Georgia receiver George Pickens (1), who might soon be returning, is shown here scoring during the Bulldogs' game with Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (Photo by Walt Beazley)

Resilient Georgia receiver room could reshape offensive identity for late run

ATHENS — Georgia’s first undefeated SEC season since 1982 had been a story of depth and persistence, a fact Kirby Smart outlined when asked to assess his team’s journey to this point.

“I’ve really been proud of what those guys have done in terms of the injuries we’ve had,” Smart said. “We just had had a countless number of guys in and out, in and out, and revolving to our receivers.”

No doubt, one of the more amazing statistical features of the No. 1 Bulldogs’ team is that the top three reception leaders — Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell — didn’t catch a pass last season.

Georgia has been among the most efficient offenses in the nation, but the Bulldogs rank 9th in the SEC in passing yards per game and 62nd in the nation entering the noon game with Georgia Tech on Saturday.

It has been a tough year for Georgia receivers between the injuries and ground-oriented attack —Only 5 of the top 10 pass-catchers on the team play the WR position.

Kearis Jackson, who led UGA with 36 catches for 514 yards last season in 10 games, ranks seventh on the team with only 12 catches after being slowed and somewhat limited by offseason knee surgery.

The Georgia WR group might soon get a lift with prime-time target George Pickens back working with the offense in practice while awaiting final clearance from the ACL injury that’s sidelined him since he suffered it last March 23.

RELATED: What Kirby Smart said about George Pickens practicing with the team

Pickens closed last season with an impressive four-game flurry, catching 23 passes for 373 yards after managing just 13 catches for 140 yards the first four games he played.

As Smart, alluded, the receiver position has had more than its fair share of injuries.

In addition to Pickens, other receivers who have missed time at the position include: Jermaine Burton, Dominick Blaylock, Justin Robinson, Kearis Jackson, Arian Smith, Arik Gilbert, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint.

Smart said the injuries haven’t been the result of overly physical practices, as much as what he referred to as a “cumulative effect” triggered by the lack of depth.

“These aren’t injuries that are occurring because we’re banging in practice, that’s not the case,” Smart said midseason. “Some of these are soft tissue injuries … it’s just a cumulative effect at receiver.

“We’ve done less receiver work than ever because we lost three receivers in the transfer portal and it’s like we got George down, then we got Dom down,” he said. “What happens is, the cumulative effect starts getting the other guys and we’ve had to cut back. We track their yardages. We do everything we can to help them.”

Burton’s return has been key, as the understudy of former UGA Terence Edwards is the most explosive of the group

Burton, lest anyone forget, is just over one year removed from his 8-catch, 197-yard breakout game against Mississippi State.

Burton has flashed at times this season, but he hasn’t caught more than four passes in a game or recorded a 100-yard receiving game this season.

Much of the receiver drop-off is due to a shift in offensive philosophy and quarterbacks, from pass-first, back to run-first and play action in Georgia’s ground-and-pound attack.

“I think the play-action pass game has helped our lack of depth at receiver succeed, along with our depth at running-back and tight-end,” Smart has said, noting a higher percentage of plays run with 3 tight end sets on the field this season.

The two scholarship receivers who have not missed extended time due to injuries are McConkey, who redshirted last season, and Mitchell, a freshman.

McConkey leads the WR group with 24 catches and Mitchell is second on the team with 23 catches.

Bowers leads Georgia with 34 catches, but Smart said part of the reason is that Darnell Washington missed the first four games and has remained limited even after returning.

“You know, tight ends are the most consistent position,” Smart said. “But even Darnell (Washington), was a lot faster before the injury. He had to really work himself back into shape.”

Washington, who many expected to be a primary target, has just 7 catches for 102 yards -a line some thought could be possible in one game.

But with Washington gaining steam each week, Burton back in the lineup after a long list of injuries and Blaylock returning last week, the Georgia pass game could be on the verge of elevating.

“When we are fully healthy at receiver, excluding George and Dom, we have a good unit,” Smart said. “With George and Dom, that’s what we thought going into the season would be special.”

Here’s a look at Georgia receptions leaders:

TE Brock Bowers, 34 catches (552 yards, 16.24 yards per catch)

WR Ladd McConkey, 24 catches (376 yards, 15.67 ypc)

WR Adonai Mitchell, 23 catches (325 yards, 14.13 ypc)

WR Jermaine Burton, 19 catches (351 yards, 18.47 ypc)

RB James Cook, 17 catches (129 yards, 7.59 ypc)

RB Kenny McIntosh, 12 catches (164 yards, 13.67 ypc)

WR Kearis Jackson, 12 catches (158 yards, 13.17 ypc)

TE Darnell Washington 7 catches (122 yards, 17.43 ypc)

WR Marcus Rosemy, 6 catches (64 yards, 10.67 ypc)

TE John FitzPatrick 5 catches (61 yards, 12.20 ypc)