UGA's Mitchell could put up big numbers with strict WR focus

It’s hard to argue with Malcolm Mitchell’s production over his first two seasons in Athens.

The junior wide receiver was second on the team with 665 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2011. He followed that debut with a 572-yard sophomore season (also good enough for second on the squad) and another four touchdowns in 2012.

To the casual observer, Malcolm Mitchell has been very productive. But his 1,237 yards and eight touchdowns are only part of the story. Consider the timeline of Mitchell’s still-young career:

Feb. 6, 2011: Malcolm Mitchell signs with Georgia as a part of the “Dream Team” recruiting class out of Valdosta High School.

Summer, 2011: Mitchell arrives on campus and is immediately praised by teammates for his speed and separation at the receiver position.

Sept. 3, 2011: Mitchell makes his college debut, hauling in three catches for 64 yards and one TD (51 yards) against Boise State. He also chips in 18 yards the ground on one carry.

Oct. 8, 2011: Mitchell hauls in three catches for 126 yards against Tennessee, but injures his hamstring during the game. The team’s leader in catches (25) and yards (438) misses the next three games.

Jan. 2, 2012: Mitchell catches seven passes for 51 yards. This is just his second game with over 35 receiving yards since Oct. 8.

Spring/summer, 2012: Mitchell makes a switch to defensive back to add depth. Coaches insist he will still be used on offense, but the bulk of his time is spent at cornerback.

Aug. 28, 2012: Mitchell is listed as a starter at cornerback for Georgia.

Aug. 30, 2012: Mitchell injures his ankle. He misses the season opener.

Sept. 8, 2012: Mitchell makes his debut as a cornerback against Missouri.

Sept. 29, 2012: Mitchell returns — in earnest — to the offensive side of the ball and registers four catches against Tennessee.

Jan. 1, 2013: Mitchell leaves the Capital One Bowl early due to injury. He does not register a catch.

Mitchell’s performance is a bit more impressive with that sequence of events providing context. Mitchell has played primarily on the offensive side of the ball in just 20 of Georgia’s 28 games over the past two seasons. Project his numbers out over that period to allow for good health and a more narrow focus, and Mitchell could have produced 1,732 yards and 11 TDs.

But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. Lost in the midst of all of those statistics is the most important number for a young wide receiver: time. More importantly, timing. And chemistry. It takes time to build a connection with the quarterback. It takes time to master routes. It takes time to understand the complexities of an offense.

Mitchell has not had time. He missed spring practice — like most freshmen — in 2011 and had only summer and fall camp to develop two years ago. He missed several weeks of his freshman season to injury. His first full offseason in Athens was spent learning a new position on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He kept up with the offensive playbook and the schemes, but his time was largely committed to learning Todd Grantham’s defense.

This year, Malcolm Mitchell is a wide receiver. He has been a wide receiver all offseason. And, he’s spent the entirety of the past eight months playing as a receiver, working with his offense and building chemistry with his quarterback.

When healthy and fully available, Mitchell has already been a weapon for Mike Bobo’s offense. He’s registered nine catches of 40 yards or more. He’s accounted for 60 or more yards in eight games. He’s the team’s leading returning receiver. But he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential as a downfield threat.

This week the league’s coaches tabbed Malcolm Mitchell as a pre-season third team All-SEC selection. That’s quite an accomplishment for a junior who’s missed so much time at his primary position. If he stays healthy in 2013, that prediction could be proven foolish. He could be on the first team.