Freshman receiver Chris Conley was a little late getting to the party this year, but he’s more than made up for lost time.
In the early fall, the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Conley was merely an observer in No. 14 Georgia’s first three games — including the bench-clearing victory over Coastal Carolina — and he pondered the possibility of a redshirt season.
But he was finally called upon in the fourth week against Ole Miss and has been a steady performer ever since, with 10 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown and several critical drive-extending catches in Georgia’s 24-20 victory over Florida.
“I didn’t have an idea (of playing time) but I had an aspiration and a dream, and that motivated me to work,” said Conley, who had five catches for 126 yards (both career highs) and his first collegiate touchdown in last week’s homecoming drubbing of New Mexico State. “I knew I’d be given a shot and get a look, but no matter which way it went, I’d be ready.
“I was thinking I’d be ready, no matter what. But it was already the third game and I had it in my mind that if it was going to be a redshirt year, I was going to be ready for it and do whatever it takes to get better and help the team.”
He is the fourth player from Georgia — which hosts No. 24 Auburn at 3:30 p.m. today in a pivotal Southeastern Conference game — to collect a 100-yard receiving game in 2011 (along with Orson Charles, fellow freshman Malcolm Mitchell and Marlon Brown). Conley’s opportunity to display his abilities came in part due to injuries to Mitchell and Rantavious Wooten, but he has quickly gained the confidence of his teammates.
“He may have been overshadowed a little bit by how well Mitchell’s playing, and Malcolm pulling his hamstring may have helped Conley because it gave him a chance to slide up that spot on the depth chart, get some playing time and really get out there and showcase his abilities,” said tight end Aron White of Conley. “Conley’s a guy who has a bright future ahead of him and I think before it’s over with, he’ll be a household name because he definitely has that type of ability.”
“He works hard at what he does and it’s showing because he’s making plays and he’s gained a lot of my trust,” added quarterback Aaron Murray, who has completed at least one pass to 11 different receivers this season. “He’s earned my trust and the coaches’ trust and I’m not scared at all to throw to him any pass we have.”
Coach Mark Richt has lauded Conley — who enrolled at Georgia in January and participated in spring drills — for his conditioning and preparedness and expressed no shock at his immediate contributions.
“I wasn’t that surprised Chris would make a contribution, but I didn’t necessarily expect it this year and we weren’t even sure we were going to play him right away, and it was a couple of games in before we played the kid,” said Richt. “Part of the reason why we did play him was because he paid attention and he knew what to do.
“We thought he could line up and not get us beat, and beyond that he started making plays and really gained a lot of confidence and we gained confidence in him. So as far as freshmen go, Malcolm Mitchell has made a pretty big splash, but Chris Conley has also made a difference for us in big games, so we are proud of him.”
Conley’s ascension adds another layer to Georgia’s diversified passing attack, something that wasn’t necessarily expected this year after the departure of A.J. Green.
“We knew we could get the job done, and everybody’s stepped up well, especially Conley and Malcolm when he’s in, and even Taylor Bradberry and Rhett McGowan have stepped up and filled the shoes,” said Michael Bennett, yet another freshman receiver.
“It feels great to go from just learning … to being someone they’re allowing to actually go execute on the field,” Conley added. “It’s an honor and I just want to keep getting better.”
A standout receiver at North Paulding High School, Conley said he checked out a host of schools during the recruiting process, but felt most at home in Athens.
“I looked at a couple of schools, some in the Southeastern Conference and some in the ACC and some across the country, but what really drew me to Georgia was the coaches,” he said. “I wanted to play for men of character. I wanted to play for coaches who I could be proud of at the end of the day that I played for them. When I came here, I felt that connection with the coaches and the players and I honestly felt this was where God wanted me to be.”