Lawrence Cager could’ve limped around TIAA Bank Field with a walking boot and crutches, but he still would’ve taken a snap and tried to run past a defender.
After missing the Kentucky game with a shoulder and rib injury, Georgia’s graduate transfer wide receiver had every ounce of determination to return to the field. A chance to do it against Florida, too, made it even sweeter as a former Miami Hurricane. His prognosis was week-to-week, and head coach Kirby Smart made a timetable for his return sound ominous.
None of it mattered. He did extra work throughout the off week. Side running, contact with Kevlar pads to decrease pressure, and rehab sessions with training staff. You name it, the 6-foot-5 pass catcher did it.
An Undertaker meme on Twitter and a “Guess who’s back?” Instagram caption capped off his return with flair.
“If I could barely walk, I was going to help this team win,” Cager said in a more laid-back, yet affirmative demeanor than usual. “... This is my last go-round in college football. I’ve been anxious to get back on the field with my brothers.”
Smart didn’t know what to expect, much like his feelings when Cager arrived at Georgia. After a long layoff, conditioning had to play a factor, Smart said. Cager could run, swim or bike, but his real test came when running precise routes against Florida defensive backs. He struggled with it at times as he had to come out of the game periodically, and didn’t receive a start — although, it doesn’t matter much because he entered on the second play.
Throughout his absence, Georgia looked different. Quarterback Jake Fromm looked different, more importantly. He has a strong rapport with his receiver, because they’ve got a similar thought process and level of intelligence. Smart grew concerned with Fromm, possibly somewhat due to a waft of criticism and two iffy offensive performances, to the point where they met for lunch to “break bread” and communicate about the status of the season.
All of those vanished with Cager back. Fromm looked anew, and Cager looked like the No. 1 receiver. No ifs, ands or buts about it — even if they won’t admit to being the “go-to” connection. He finished with a career high 132 yards on seven receptions. His second-highest total came against Notre Dame this season with 82 yards. Cager hadn’t recorded more than four catches in a game until arriving at Georgia.
His performance progressed in gradual fashion. Cager started off as the third-down machine, leading the way toward Georgia converting on 12 of 18 tries. Three of his first four completions came on the drive’s most crucial play — receptions of 15, eight and 12 yards.
“It really says a lot about his character,” Fromm said, referencing Cager. “He’s really balling out. … He really ups the level of everybody else around him.”
Explosive plays have been Georgia’s goal, and it leaned on No. 15 to fulfill them.
A 30-yard catch set up a 27-yard field goal from Rodrigo Blankenship.
A matter of moments later. Georgia’s big break. Fromm escaped from the pocket on a play-action pass. Georgia had a chance to create the final piece of separation needed to beat its hated rival. Cager broke free.
Fifty-two yards. Orange end zone paint. Touchdown.
Reporter: So, Lawrence, what did you see?
Cager: “Wide open. The ball.”
For kicks and a needed two points, Cager caught the following conversion play to give Georgia its 24th point and enough for a seven-point victory.
“He’s emerged,” Smart said. “As a really good player for us. As a competitor.”
Cager reminisced on his performance with swagger. He waited for this moment. It’s one he didn’t get at all while at Miami. Cager always believed in himself. He knows he can play with “anybody, any team and against any person,” as he put it, and Saturday’s effort validated that.
He came to Georgia with his own performances as an afterthought. Cager knew his capabilities and wanted to intertwine those with winning a national title. That’s what rested on his mind, and he thought Georgia would be the best place to give that a shot. Miami underwent coaching turnover with the retirement of Mark Richt, and Cager didn’t want his last opportunity to come on a team expecting a .500-or-so record.
Georgia landed Cager due to his relationship with offensive coordinator James Coley. He coached him as a freshman in Coral Gables, Fla., and Smart recruited him when at Alabama. Coley knew of his skill set and said in August that it was a “very intriguing thing” to acquire a player of his talents. Otherwise, Georgia went into this addition blind.
Cager went through preseason camp and Smart and his coaching staff had to think. Would he be the guy or just one of the guys as the Bulldogs tried to fill a receiver room that lost a load of experience?
No questions about it, Cager is the guy and is basking in the success of his final year in college. Almost to the point where he could be of benefit in any situation … even a broken leg.
“Huge for us. He’s an awesome player and a dog on the field,” tight end Eli Wolf said, also a graduate transfer who hauled in the game-sealing first-down catch. “He makes big plays and it’s obvious that a guy like him can bring this team to another level.”