TAMPA, Fla. — The University of Georgia football team has quite a few offensive options to choose from. The Bulldogs boast senior quarterback David Greene, the NCAA’s career wins leader, a pair of fleet-footed receivers, including All-SEC first-team pick Reggie Brown and a pair of dynamic freshman tailbacks.
It is the big man in the middle that may draw the most attention Saturday, however, when No. 8 Georgia faces No. 17 Wisconsin in the Outback Back bowl here. All-SEC tight end Leonard Pope, a 6-foot-8, 253-pound mountain of a man, presents a substantial matchup problem.
Only a sophomore, Pope looks the part with a massive body that can barrel down on linebackers and defensive backs alike as he works the middle of the field. What is striking, though, is that Pope, in spite of his size, is still learning the finer points of blocking. As a receiver, his athleticism and body control make him dangerous.
“It’s not so much his size, it’s his ability to run,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. “You just got to make sure that you always have the answer and that the middle of the field is always covered.”
Teams have tried a variety of defenses this season against Pope, who emerged late in the year as a big-play threat, catching 22 passes for 417 yards. His six touchdown catches—tied for the team lead—all came during a five-game touchdown-reception streak that was snapped in the Bulldogs’ last game against Georgia Tech.
“He’s really come on…Really last half of the season has come on and done a great job for us,” Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Calloway said. “He is a weapon that we feel we are very fortunate to have.”
Pope took over the starting job in week two after junior tight end Martrez Milner was hampered with back spasms but did not catch a pass in the Bulldogs’ first three games. In Georgia’s last six games he has 19 catches for 360 yards and six touchdowns.
“I developed early in the season. I just take it practice-by-practice, step-by-step,” Pope said. “Fortunately, I was happy to have passes thrown to me and had….the focus to make those catches.”
Three years ago Pope was a 6-foot-8, 230-pound slot receiver/free safety playing high school ball in Americus, Ga. He spent a year in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy before arriving in Athens.
“I knew what I had to do in life. I had to take a step down…and get to where I am right now,” Pope said.
“Everybody expected me, coming out of high school, to go straight to college,” he said. “I really had to swallow my pride. I became close with a lot of guys up there. With discipline-wise, getting up in the morning, the uniforms and everything. It really kind of made a man out of me.”
The year in prep school also helped Pope’s development curve on the football field.
“He came on a little bit more mature as a freshman,” Georgia tight ends coach Dave Johnson said. “We expected good things from him. He’ll continue to get the ball as long as he continues to make plays.”
Opponents have often tried to jam Pope at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker or defensive end. Pope is too athletic for most linebackers to stick with him, though, and if a safety is responsible for him downfield it opens up Brown or fellow senior receiver Fred Gibson on the outside. That duo has combined for 95 receptions, 1,580 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Towards the end of the year some teams were noticing [Pope] a little bit more and maybe doing some things to put maybe somebody in his face or rotate coverages,” Johnson said. “We have so many weapons it makes it hard just to focus in on one guy. He’ll find his spots and he’ll get his catches. It is a matter of how big they’ll be.”
Often enough, Pope’s receptions were huge. He averaged 19 yards per catch this season and had seven catches of more than 20 yards, including touchdown snags of 27 and 35 yards in a 31-24 win over Florida. He followed a three-reception, 90-yard performance in that game with five catches for 91 yards against Kentucky.
“I just try to be a playmaker, just try to make big plays,” Pope said. “It’s basically what coaches expect from me and all my teammates.”
“He really is an athletic body that can stretch the field vertically at that position, just kind of changes the game a little bit for what you can do defensively because you’ve always got to be conscientious of that big-play threat,” Bielema said.
For Pope, developing as a receiver has been the easy part. Blocking was less comfortable.
“In high school he wasn’t asked to block, I don’t think at all,” Johnson said. “He was more of a slot receiver and free safety….Guys are very anxious to run and catch the football. They’re not quite as anxious to run their face into something.”
Pope has become more comfortable with blocking, however, and shows the promise to become a dominant two-way tight end.
“We’re getting better at it,” Johnson said. “He’s understanding the running game a whole lot better and what it takes. Just little intricacies and the coaching points that we use on different running plays.”
Georgia tailbacks Thomas Brown and Danny Ware, who have combined for 1,455 yards and 11 touchdowns, have had a simple message for Pope.
“My running backs, they say I only have to block for two or three seconds to get around,” Pope said.