Georgia hoping to find way to win without Gary

ATHENS, Ga. - For one game against Kentucky, Georgia had enough playmakers to survive the loss of Fred Gibson, one of its top receivers.

Now comes a bigger challenge: Is Georgia's offense deep enough to withstand the additional loss of Damien Gary in Saturday night's game against Florida? With Fred Gibson struggling in his attempts to return to practice only one week after having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb and Gary lost with a leg injury, No. 5 Georgia must survive the loss of a combined 52 receptions for 665 yards and six touchdowns.

Additionally, Gibson and Gary rank among the top 15 in the nation in kickoff and punt returns, respectively, and each had scored one touchdown in that role. That's a lot of big-play ability to take from a team, and yet there are more big names on the offense attempting to recover from injuries.

Like Gibson, leading rusher Musa Smith is returning to practice this week with a cast on his left hand. Smith, returning from a broken thumb, appears more comfortable than Gibson, but still the thought of sending a starting tailback onto the field with a cast on one hand is a concern.

Finally, offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb is returning from arthroscopic knee surgery last week. Stinchcomb joined team drills Wednesday but is not 100 percent, according to line coach Neil Callaway.

The long injury list, topped by the most recent loss of Gary, gives Coach Mark Richt legitimate cause for concern as he tries to figure out a way to match Florida's offensive potential with quarterback Rex Grossman and running back Earnest Graham.

"You add Gary (to the injury list) and if we don't get Fred back, I don't know if we have enough,'' Richt said Wednesday. "We'll just have to wait and see.''

It was immediately obvious that it will take more than one player to fill Gary's roles. Even if Gibson is given a limited role at receiver, Michael Johnson, Reggie Brown and freshman Bryan McClendon each will have to play more snaps as the starting receivers with Terrence Edwards. Johnson and Brown now will join Edwards in three-receiver sets. If Georgia opens with four receivers, McClendon could receive his first start.

"I am ready,'' McClendon said. "Terrence has been the great leader. He's telling me 'You've got to step up now.' Even last week when Fred went down, I had more reps in practice. That really helped.'' Asked if he has enough experience to move up in the big game, McClendon smiled and said "It wouldn't matter, would it? Either way, I have to go out and give all I can.''

McClendon has been working at the "Z'' receiver position that had been Gary's spot.

"It will be tough to try to play it like Damien does and what he brings to the team,'' McClendon said. "Losing him is a definite blow.''

Even though he was fitted with a smaller cast after Tuesday's practice, Gibson admits he will have difficulty with any pass he can't catch against his body. Gibson admitted he was in pain Wednesday and was considering a return to the more bulky, but more protective, cast he wore Monday and Tuesday.

"Once you get hurt, it's like you're scared to put the hand up there ... because it's still sore,'' Gibson said after Wednesday's practice.  Gibson said "I plan to play.  "When I go out there Saturday and see all those people, I might forget all about (the injury),'' he said.

Meanwhile, there is the additional dilemma of replacing Gary on punt returns. Early in the week, Richt expressed concern about overloading Edwards with too much responsibility, but Edwards has worked with the first-team punt and kickoff returns in practice. Sean Jones, the starting free safety, is also practicing fielding punts this week.

"I don't really have any experience (returning punts) but I believe in my athletic ability,'' Jones said.

Richt has no expectation of finding another return specialist who can match Gary's ability to create yards.

"My number one concern is just getting somebody back there who can field it,'' Richt said.

The most logical candidate - in fact, the only candidate with college experience - is Edwards. But Edwards already has has to take the lead role on kickoff returns after the loss of Gibson. Edwards will have less time to rest on offense without Gary in the rotation at receiver.

"Kick and punt duties might be too much (for Edwards),'' Richt said. "The last two ballgames he's been complaining of cramping up a little bit as it is. Now if we give him any more than that he might have some trouble.'' Returning punts can be more difficult and more dangerous than returning kicks. The punt returner must make decisions inside the 20-yard line on whether to make a fair catch, attempt a return, or let the punt hit the ground, hoping for a touchback.

Edwards' experience might be best utilized on punt returns, in which case Georgia coaches might take him off the kickoff return team. Freshman cornerback Tim Jennings, also an option on punt returns, would be the likely lead kickoff return specialist if Edwards is taken off the kickoff team.

Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com

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