Those of you who have followed my work for a little while know that I’m always weary of media narratives. Before I take the line that is being repeated over and over on Twitter or talk radio at face value I have to do my own digging. Last offseason the two narratives I tackled most were “Dan Mullen is a Top Ten Coach” and “Kirby Smart Can’t Develop.” Well, I think we know how those turned out.
Georgia’s 2021 National Championship killed the vast majority of the negative narratives that were repeated for years by journalists who don’t do their homework and rival programs recruiting against UGA. However, one narrative remains prevalent around the UGA program. So, does Georgia really have a WR development problem?
The story goes that UGA doesn’t want to pass and doesn’t develop wide-receivers. It is true that in Georgia’s history there has only been a single wide-receiver who has had a 1,000 yard season (Terrence Edwards had 1,004 yards receiving in 2002), but did UGA really avoid throwing to its wide-receivers in 2021? Is the program wasting talent?
Many of UGA’s current WR targets in the 2023 recruiting class have openly admitted that opposing staffs have tried to paint Georgia as a program that wastes receiving talent. I’m going to take a look at this narrative from a few angles, and when we get to the end we’ll see where the data takes us.
NFL Draft Picks
Georgia hasn’t recruited wide-receivers at the level of Ohio State, the Bulldogs have only signed 1 five-Star WR in Kirby Smart’s tenure as head coach. By contrast, the Buckeyes signed 4 five-star wideouts from 2019-2021. Georgia’s main rival in the SEC over the last few seasons has been Alabama. The Crimson Tide have signed 12 players ranked as top 12 WR’s in their class since 2017. In that same time span, UGA has signed just 4 players ranked as top 12 WR’s in their recruiting class.
Despite the gap in raw talent acquired, Bulldog receivers have faired very well in the NFL Draft.
MOST WR’S DRAFTED LAST 5 YEARS
- Alabama - 8
- LSU - 7
- Clemson - 7
- Ohio State - 7
- Georgia - 6
Okay, so UGA is getting guys drafted at a pretty good rate. That should say something about development, but let’s look a little bit further into the 2021 season and get an idea of what happened.
2021 Passing Game
When talking about UGA’s 2021 offense you first have to talk about Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs were so dominant on defense that they rarely found themselves playing in a 2nd half where they were winning by less than 3 possessions. In fact, only Clemson, Auburn and Kentucky were within two scores of UGA in the 2nd half of a game in 2021.
Let’s consider a few things…
- UGA had massive injury issues at WR in 2021. It started the season without the following players fully healthy- Jermaine Burton, George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Arian Smith, Darnell Washington, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and John Fitzpatrick. That group made up the vast majority of Georgia’s returning WR production. When the Bulldogs went to play at Auburn, they had only 6 healthy receivers on the roster. It seems fair to say those depth issues probably had an influence on Todd Monken’s play calling, especially with a lead.
- Georgia’s eyes were on a national title throughout the entire 2021 season. Todd Monken has an immense array of great pass plays, but we only saw the ones that weren’t vanilla calls out of base formations when UGA found themselves in a competitive situation.
- Multiple weapons are harder to stop than 1-2 wideouts that the entire offense runs through. Monken wanted to create matchup problems at every skill position, and the best way to do that is to prove those skill players are a threat to a defense. By the end of the season, UGA’s offense was harder to gameplan for because so many players had shown they were a threat to create chunk plays. Still, it’s important to remember that injuries made it so that happened as much by necessity as it did choice.
A few stats worth noting for UGA in 2021…
- Georgia’s WR corps was EXTREMELY efficient… 3 of the SEC’s top 6 pass catchers by QB Rating were Bulldogs (McConkey 154.0, Bowers 146.3, Burton 144.4)
- 3 of the SEC’s top 5 WR’s by reception percentage in 2021 played for UGA (Burton 86.7% of targets caught, McConkey 79.5%, Bowers 78.9%)
- Ladd McConkey lead all SEC receivers in Yards per Reception on Screens (12.5)
- UGA - 9 players with 2+ Yards Per Route Run in 2021. No other SEC program had more than 5.
So that’s good, right?
Well, the thing that always gets thrown back into Georgia’s face is that they haven’t had a 1000 yard receiver under Smart. One could argue that Pickens being drafted in the early 2nd round last year despite only having 9 targets on the season is proof that a wideout doesn’t have to have a 1500 yard season to show it’s worthy of being a high selection in the NFL Draft. Still, UGA just had one of its most talented WR’s leave the program after winning a National Championship. That has caused a lot of people to assume that Burton left because Georgia doesn’t want to throw the football or isn’t good at throwing the football.
Jermaine Burton & Stetson Bennett
Jermaine Burton’s transfer to Alabama is a big reason why this negative narrative around UGA’s passing game has flourished, but let’s ask ourselves why he left. Many assumed that Burton didn’t want to play with Stetson Bennett again. Maybe that’s true, but let’s remind ourselves what Bennett did in 2021.
- 3rd in NCAA in QBR (86.7)
- 4th in NCAA in QB Rating (176.7)
- 3rd in Yards Per Attempt (10.0)
- 10.3 Yard Average Depth Of Target (ADOT) was highest among SEC QB’s
- 53.7% completion on throws over 20+ yards (2nd in SEC)
- 62.2% completion on throws 10-19 yards (2nd in SEC)
Call Bennett a game manager if you want, but if you do you’re going to be wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that Bennett isn’t the type of QB who is going to be a high-round selection in the NFL Draft. Despite that, Bennett is a very effective collegiate quarterback. I think he is a good quarterback. There are people who think he is a bad quarterback, which is 100% their right. I do want to ask those people a simple question. If Stetson Bennett is a bad QB and was still able to have the statistical output I highlighted above then Georgia’s WR’s must be REALLY good… Right? I mean the WR development must be off the charts if UGA was able to achieve those type of passing statistics and win a national title despite Bennett being under center. You cannot say that Bennett is a bad QB and UGA has bad WR development. The numbers do not allow it.
So let’s ask ourselves if there is another reason why Burton wanted to leave. Is it because Burton saw what happened when Ladd McConkey came into the lineup at the Z-Receiver position he was used to manning when he was hurt? Let’s consider McConkey’s stat line in 2021…
- Lead all SEC WR’s in Yards Per Reception on screens with 12.5
- Lead UGA WR’s in Missed Tackles Forced after a reception (6)
- When targeting McConkey in 2021, Georgia quarterbacks had a QB rating of 154.0, which was the highest on the team.
- Lead all of UGA’s WR’s in Contested Catch Percentage (80%)
- Took over half of his snaps at the Z position that Burton also plays
It’s understandable that Burton sees his 3rd year of college football as the time where he should start shining on the stat sheet. When you’re a heralded recruit who wants to see the offense at least partially flow through you then the idea of splitting reps with a former three-star recruit who got the last scholarship offered in your same class probably doesn’t sit well.
Speaking of McConkey being a three-star recruit, the numbers shared above about his 2021 season should serve as a pretty good testament to what Georgia’s staff has done in terms of WR development.
UGA basically lost its entire lineup of projected starting receivers to injury prior to the season. Despite that, they just kept on ticking. Almost nobody expected Brock Bowers, AD Mitchell and Ladd McConkey to be players who would be relied upon in significant moments prior to last season. UGA managed to get 1,757 yards receiving 22 TD’s out of those three players. Combined they averaged 15.2 yards per catch.
There just aren’t many staffs in the country that are going to get that out of 2 three-star WR’s and a four-star TE. Especially when you remember that Mitchell and Bowers were true freshman and McConkey redshirted in 2020.
So, we’ve established that Georgia was really effective when throwing the ball. Why didn’t they do it more?
If you’re familiar with advanced stats in College Football, you may have heard the term “Garbage Time” before. Garbage Time is a point in the game where victory has been secured and a play caller changes their rhythm from aggressively chasing points to actively killing the clock. Anything that takes place when a team is up by more than 28 in the first quarter, up by more than 24 in the second, up by more than 21 in the third, or up by more than 16 in the fourth is considered to be within the realm of Garbage Time play calling.
Georgia spent half of the game or more in a Garbage Time game state versus UAB, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech. That’s a lot of time where Georgia was in cruise control trying to kill clock. That’s a lot of series where everyone in the stadium knew that the Bulldogs were going to run on 1st down, run on 2nd down, and throw an out route just past the sticks on 3rd down. Simply put, UGA didn’t throw very much in 2nd halves because they were winning by large margins throughout the vast majority of the 2021 season.
Georgia attempted 250 passes in the 1st half of games compared to just 157 passes in second halves. So, let’s see what we can learn by looking at how UGA’s passing game functioned in relation to the score of the game.
First, let’s break this up simply by 1st half and 2nd half and find out how UGA fares…
The QB Rating from 2021 UGA in the first half of games was better than any of the other teams shown. Furthermore, the Bulldogs actually had more yards passing in the first half last year than Ole Miss, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They had just 13 yards less passing in the first half than 2018 Clemson, who won a national title with Trevor Lawrence. That seems good.
So let’s look at what UGA did through the air when games were competitive…
So, reader… Now that you’ve seen the data I have to ask…
Did 2021 UGA fail to produce a 1000 yard receiver because they had a WR development problem or a margin of victory problem?