ATHENS -- From afar, it looked ominous. Michael Bennett was sitting on the training table, his surgically repaired knee rested. His parents came down from the sideline and silently stood next to him.
Luckily for Bennett, and just as luckily for the Georgia football team, it looked worse than it was. Right away the trainers determined that the junior receiver had not re-torn his ACL in that Oct. 5 game at Tennessee.
“It was a different feeling,” Bennett said. “I could still walk on it fine. I knew it was stable.”
Yes, he would have to miss the next two games, and Georgia lost both of them. But the fact Bennett was able to return has been an underrated lift to Georgia’s offense as it tries to salvage something from its season.
Todd Gurley’s injury and subsequent return deservedly has received more attention. But it overshadowed the importance of Bennett also being back.
“No question,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Just the confidence level that Aaron (Murray) and Bennett have together. You could just see there wasn’t any hesitation on any of those throws.”
Georgia has had a terrible run of injuries at receiver this year. Malcolm Mitchell, the team’s top receiver, tore his ACL in the season opener before even making one catch. Justin Scott-Wesley, who replaced Mitchell as the top deep threat, tore his ACL in the Tennessee game.
Bennett picked up right where he left off against Florida, and that gives the team some hope down the stretch.
Fellow junior Chris Conley is also on track to play Saturday at No. 7 Auburn, after missing two games with a sprained ankle. But if Conley plays, he will be limited.
Either way, Bennett is still Murray’s favorite target. And his most dependable.
“I trust him,” Muray said. “If he’s covered, (at least) according to most quarterbacks and receivers, I’m still gonna give him a chance to go out there and make a play for me.”
Bennett offers Murray an inviting target because of his size: He’s 6-foot-3 and around 220 pounds. He’s also sure-handed, and while not the fastest player on the team, he runs fast enough, and he runs the right routes.
“He’s a guy that we’ve built up a trust with each other, an understanding of what’s going on, of how he’s going to run his route,” Murray said. “He knows exactly what I’m looking for, I know exactly how he’s gonna break, how he’s gonna come out of his cuts. You just have your guys, and he’s one of my guys I have complete trust in.”
Last year Bennett was leading Georgia in catches and receiving yards entering the South Carolina game. But he tore his ACL at that Tuesday’s practice.
This year there’s a decent chance Bennett ends up leading the team in those categories, if he remains healthy. He has 24 catches and 322 yards, trailing only Conley (30 catches and 418 yards).
But it’s not so much the total catches as when Bennett has made the catches.
As Bobo alluded to, there were multiple big third-down catches against Florida. That has become standard the past year, especially with Mitchell out: When Georgia most needs the big pass, Murray looks Bennett’s way.
Two years ago he might have made the most important catch of his career so far. It came against Florida, with Georgia trying to fight back from a 17-3 deficit. Facing fourth-and-5 from Florida’s 20, Murray heaved a pass into the right corner of the end zone, where Bennett caught it, then wrestled it away from the cornerback.
Ever since then, Murray and Bennett have had that rapport.
“I think I’ve gotten a little bit better in the last year, honestly. I just haven’t had the most chances to show it,” Bennett said, a reference to the injury. “It’s been a lot of catch-up, but at the same time I think I’ve matured as a receiver, and the mental aspect of it. Learning coverages more, and learning how to get off press more. It’s just being in the SEC longer you kind of learn that stuff.”
Murray was asked if Bennett was underrated.
“Every year he is,” Murray said. “This year he was having a great year before he got hurt. Now that he’s back, he’s continuing to make plays for us. He’s an unbelievable receiver.”