Five games into last season, Michael Bennett’s name jumped off the stats sheet. He led Georgia receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns. He was among the SEC leaders, too.
“I think I was on Cloud 9 a little bit,” Bennett said this week.
Then, on the final play of an early-October practice, his season crashed to an abrupt end when he attempted to block a linebacker and wound up on the ground with a torn knee ligament.
Bennett intends to pick up where he left off Saturday night, when Georgia’s season opener at Clemson will be his first game action since a victory over Tennessee 11 months ago. The Bulldogs’ latest depth chart lists him as the starting split end.
The injury and the resulting ACL reconstruction surgery on his right knee came at a particularly cruel time for Bennett, just as the 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver from Alpharetta had emerged as a somewhat surprising star for the only SEC team to offer him a scholarship. But he is convinced that he’ll show Saturday and in subsequent games that the injury was only an interruption of his career trajectory.
“I think I’m better than what I was,” he said, adding that his route-running is better and his footwork better. “I’m watching film of myself compared to last year, and it all looks a step better.”
Before the injury, Bennett had made a habit of improvement.
Ranked a middling three-star prospect by recruiting services in high school, he was offered a scholarship when he showed up at a camp on the UGA campus in the summer of 2009 and kept catching passes against five-star cornerbacks, impressing Georgia coaches with his competitiveness and ball skills.
After benefiting from a redshirt season as a freshman in 2010, Bennett began to make an impact in 2011: playing in all 14 games and starting four; catching seven passes against Vanderbilt and five against Auburn; catching a key 20-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-5 against Florida; finishing the season with 32 catches for 320 yards.
His role expanded at the start of last season as he used his size and reliable route-running to become a favorite target of quarterback Aaron Murray. Bennett had eight catches at Missouri, 110 receiving yards against Florida Atlantic and, in what proved to be his final game of the season, five catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee on Sept. 29.
By the time of the injury, he had caught 24 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns — numbers that, spread over the full season, projected to 67 catches, 966 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I think I was just doing what I knew I could do, but it was kind of surreal at the same time,” Bennett said this week. “Seeing your name on top of the (team) receiver list and No. 4 in the SEC in receptions and receiving yards is kind of cool.
“But you’ve got to stay grounded. And I feel like my torn ACL grounded me pretty well,” he added, managing a laugh.
The unnamed linebacker he was attempting to block in that fateful Oct. 2 practice — the Tuesday before the South Carolina game — “kind of picked me up,” Bennett said. “And when I came down, my leg was extended. It just popped right there. At first I thought it was just something minor — but obviously not.”
He had the dreaded ACL surgery and started the long, lonely work of rehabilitation.
“It was real humbling,” he said. “It taught me not to take anything for granted. It’s made me take my play to a new level, I feel like. I’m not taking any play off because it could be my last, any one.
“I thought I was kind of invincible. I hadn’t really been injured at all my whole career. So I didn’t think it could happen to me, and sure enough it did.”
He wasn’t able to participate in spring practice with his teammates, although he believes he used the time productively by working alone on his footwork. By this summer, the rehab was complete. He has participated without limitation through preseason practices, his smooth transition from injury list back onto the field comforting coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Which brings Bennett to Saturday, to Clemson, to a new season in which big things are expected from a Georgia offense that appears to have a wealth of receivers as well as a record-setting quarterback, two top-tier tailbacks and an experienced and deep line.
“Can’t wait,” Bennett said. “Can’t wait.
“I know I will be excited, obviously, but hopefully I will play real calm. … I think I’m definitely ready to go out there and pick up where I left off.”