One month after losing leading receiver Michael Bennett for the season with an injured right knee, No. 5 Georgia is adjusting to the loss of Marlon Brown as it prepares to play at Auburn on Saturday night. Brown, who shares the team lead in receptions with Tavarres King, tore his ACL in last week’s 37-10 win over Mississippi.
King and Malcolm Mitchell are left as the leaders of the depleted unit. Rantavious Wooten, Chris Conley and Rhett McGowan could play bigger roles against Auburn.
“Certainly, people are going to have to step up,” said King, a senior. “We’re going to need everybody. It’s all hands on deck.”
Brown and Bennett each had four touchdown catches. King has six scoring catches; no other player has more than two.
Brown, King, Wooten and Mitchell caught touchdown passes from Aaron Murray in the win over Ole Miss. Brown had a team-leading 113-yards receiving, including a 66-yard touchdown pass, before hurting his knee.
Including tight ends and running backs, 11 Georgia players had catches in the game. It was a show of strength that caught the attention of Auburn coach Gene Chizik.
“Even though they’ve had a couple of injuries, the next guy steps up to the plate,” Chizik said. “Everybody understands they are where they are offensively because they do have explosive guys and they’re very efficient at what they do.”
Georgia can win the Eastern Division and clinch a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game by beating Auburn.
Murray had 384 yards passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions for the Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) against Ole Miss.
King and Mitchell are expected to be Murray’s top targets against Auburn. Murray said Brown, like Bennett, was a strong receiver who could break free from defensive backs at the line and when making catches.
“It’s tough losing both of those guys, especially because they’re so physical,” Murray said. “Those are guys you can play on the weak side, in the slot, in both slots on the weak side. You can move them around, which was huge in our offense.
“I feel bad for Marlon, it being his senior year. It’s not the way he wanted to go out. But I know we have guys who can step up. They’ve got to be ready to go.”
Murray mentioned freshman Justin Scott-Wesley as one of the players who has to take a bigger role.
Scott-Wesley has only one catch, a 43-yarder against Florida Atlantic. Richt also mentioned Scott-Wesley, saying the freshman “is going to get a little more opportunity.”
Mitchell has re-emerged at receiver after opening the season at cornerback. Mitchell has 26 catches, including 24 in just the last five games.
King leads the team with 27 receptions for 551 yards.
“Tavarres King is an outstanding player,” coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “He’s a guy we believe in and trust to do well. Malcolm Mitchell has proved to be a play-maker, without any question.”
Richt has kept Mitchell familiar with the defensive schemes in case he is needed at cornerback again. Richt said Mitchell’s practice time on defense “will be diminished just a little bit more” after Brown’s injury.
King and Mitchell are established receivers, but there’s little experience behind the two. McGowan, a junior, is a former walk-on who had two catches against Ole Miss.
McGowan has been best known as the player who usually makes fair catches on punt returns. Now he’s hoping for an expanded role on offense as Georgia adjusts its depth chart at wide receiver.
“It’s definitely a lot of experience gone,” McGowan said of Brown and Bennett. “I just think it forces everyone else to be that much more prepared. Top to bottom, that just puts that much more on everybody. There are a lot of people who can play in there.
“I think everyone is ready, everyone is focused. If that means my number is called more, that’s fine and I’ll be ready.”
NOTES: Richt said senior DE Abry Jones, who has missed the last two games with a left ankle injury, will not return. Jones had 17 tackles in seven games. Garrison Smith and Cornelius Washington are the projected starting defensive ends against Auburn. ... Richt began his weekly news conference by saying he voted “about a week or two ago. ... Richt said OG Chris Burnett (left shoulder) “is not out of the question” for returning this week. He hurt the shoulder in the first half of the Ole Miss game.