Fifteen minutes before kickoff Saturday, Georgia will honor 21 seniors.
They will include more than a half dozen high-profile defensive players who have started a combined 67 games this season and only one player — receiver Tavarres King — who has started on offense the last two games.
Considering Georgia enters the game against Georgia Tech averaging 37.6 points per game — which would be the highest in program history — that’s reason for the guy running the offense to feel good about what’s still to come from a unit that ranks 21st nationally.
“I do like that you see a lot of guys that potentially could be back for us,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Guys are getting a lot of experience. That’s good for the future of Georgia. Obviously we’re going to miss Tavarres and what he’s done, his big-play ability and Marlon Brown (the receiver with a season-ending knee injury), but the guys that are playing now are getting a lot of valuable experience that’s going to help the rest of this year and help them next year, too.”
Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who have combined to rush for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns, will be sophomores. An offensive line that has performed better than expected will return intact and Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Rantavious Wooten will be part of a receiving corps that is expected to get back Michael Bennett from an ACL injury. Top tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome also return.
“You don’t really lose anything but a sexy face,” King said referring to himself.
Of course, if junior Aaron Murray opted to enter the NFL draft, that would change the outlook for the group that would have a first-year starting quarterback, presumably Hutson Mason, who is redshirting.
“If he goes, a lot changes because the offense is centered around him,” Mitchell said of Murray, a player with 38 career starts. “Hutson’s been playing with us for just as long as Murray has but those game reps are different than practice.”
Conley, who has three touchdowns the past two games, said he’s hoping Murray returns, but if not he expected it would be “seamless” going to Mason.
“He knows the offense,” Conley said.
Coach Mark Richt is cautious about what all those returners would mean knowing the defense — which dealt with suspensions to four starters to begin the year — failed to live up to high expectations for the first half of the season.
“I hope its good news,” Richt said. “But all offseason all we talked about was how great our defense was going to be. I think our defense is certainly beginning to play like that, but it sure took a while. So I don’t want to make any kind of bold predictions or anything like that, but it’s always nice to have veteran players come back.”
King said the offensive line will be looked at as leaders.
“Just to have the team that we have and a lot of people were talking about our line, but it seems to me they are having a pretty successful season with me and Keith and Ken (Malcome) running ball and Aaron passing,” Gurley said
Added Murray: “They’ve continued to get better and better every week and I think another offseason of them jelling together, another spring and another camp. … They’re going to be unbelievable next year.”
Center David Andrews called returning the starting five from the line a “big thing. If everyone stays healthy with some more guys stepping up and coming into the rotation, we could have seven or eight guys that could play consistently and play good. … It’s comforting.”
At receiver, Georgia will add 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior college wideout Jonathon Rumph, who announced his commitment Wednesday night and plans to enroll in January.
Mitchell didn’t want to minimize what losing receivers King and Brown will mean not only on the field but off.
“Marlon and TK brought so much to the table,” he said. “They showed us how to do what we’re doing. Them leaving does take a huge blow, moreso than just two people being gone. They took us like kids and rose us up sort of like the coaches did, but the coaches aren’t with us 24-7.”
Bobo is one of 29 nominees for the Frank Broyles Award for nation’s top assistant coach. He’s one of only two SEC offensive coordinators on the list, along with Texas A&M’s Kliff Kingsbury. Texas A&M and Georgia are Nos. 1 and 2 in the SEC in offensive touchdowns scored with 56 and 54, respectively.
“We have a lot of young talent and they’re only going to get better,” Conley said.
“It’s a very exciting team,” Murray said. “Especially the way we’ve been playing offensively this entire season to have everyone back. … We’ve still got to finish this year off strong but the future is bright for the University of Georgia.”