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Turning ‘burden’ into ‘influence’: How Georgia has powered through a rash of injuries

Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson vividly remembers the frustrating moment at Vanderbilt Stadium. He caught a downfield pass and got hit by a defender which caused him to lose possession. The young receiver regretted the fumble enough, but then the unthinkable happened as Jackson shook his hand.

A fracture in three different places. The redshirt freshman from Peach County had a glimmer of hope and it vanished in the first game. Jackson found himself sidelined, unable to contribute and in a significant amount of pain. He broke his left wrist as a high-school senior, and an injury on the same hand followed.

“I couldn’t let it affect how I wanted this season to go,” Jackson said. “I got closer to God and started praying more.”

Jackson wanted to have an influence, so his role shifted. He underwent surgery and progressively returned to practice with a bulky club (heavily-wrapped cast) then a carbon-fiber wrist splint. His only action for a few weeks was moving his hand in a bucket of dry rice. Through it all, the slot receiver weapon became the encourager.

He knew the feeling of being on the field, but behind the sideline where perspective came away from the huddle. Soon after Jackson suffered his injury, a slew of others joined him: running back Brian Herrien, wide receiver Lawrence Cager, offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson and cornerback Tyson Campbell to name a few. Call in the Bulldogs’ hype man, Jackson, to cure any discouragement.

“I wanted to be a bigger blessing to my teammates,” Jackson said. “It can be a burden (to not be on the field). I had to be an influence to them.”

Those with mentalities like Jackson replicated across the Bulldogs’ locker room. Coaches communicate through issues, but so do players. Jackson said it’s a byproduct of “this generation,” so take the wide receivers’ position group as an example. If a teammate playing the same position has input, Jackson is more likely to take it to heart because of shared experience.

The Bulldogs believe in depth, a positive approach and the inevitable “standard” to power through injuries. As SEC play began, the list continued to lengthen, but now fortunes of good health have come Georgia’s way after the second bye week.

Ahead of its showdown with No. 6 Florida (3:30 p.m., CBS), Cager and Campbell could return to action as starters. Head coach Smart said they were practice participants Monday, but the session was closed to the local media.

“We definitely want to see everyone healthy, but injuries come with the game,” offensive lineman Cade Mays said. “That’s something we’re all prepared for.”

Said Smart: “I think you get a little bit of anxiety out of the backup guy who maybe hasn’t played as much. That’s life in the SEC. That’s life across the board.”

Georgia maintains optimism though due to its rehab plan and the staffers conducting it. The Bulldogs’ long-time sports medicine director Ron Courson spends time with the players in physical therapy settings and prepares them for return to workouts. Once a player is ready to put in his own work, those like Jackson might embody the “do more” motto by working with a JUGS machine. He grabs 200 balls after practice each day to ensure he can efficiently catch after his operation.

Despite that, however, there’s a level of disappointment when an injury sidelines a player. Georgia noticed a bit of drop-off offensively with 38 combined points against South Carolina and Tennessee, and player absences likely played a factor. Quarterback Jake Fromm’s favorite target, Cager, couldn’t continue to be reliable. Running back depth temporarily lessened with Herrien’s injury. Offensive line rotations became shaky with multiple players “banged up,” as Smart likes to say.

Nevertheless, belief stood strong inside the locker room. Georgia could reap those rewards with nearly-full health ahead of a tough five-game stretch against two top-15 opponents to close the regular season.

“We know we have guys that are just as good,” Jackson said. “That’s when recruiting comes in. We have to go out and play hard every snap, so we have guys to do that when others are down.”

Once those key players return from their injury, nothing is sweeter for a Georgia player or coach than to see them be influential on the game.

Jackson remembers his return just as vividly as the pain. On D’Andre Swift’s 39-yard touchdown against Kentucky, Jackson’s block led the star running back towards the end zone. Jackson told the coaches “If I can’t block, then I don’t need to be on the field.”

He blocked. He achieved his goal by benefiting the team. That’s all Jackson wanted.

“He’s more excited about his block than catching the ball,” Smart said. “It’s the kind of guys that I want on my team. I want guys lined up all over (who) are like that.”

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