ATHENS, Ga. — Tyler Simmons' role as the senior leader of No. 4 Georgia's wide receivers has never been more important.
The Bulldogs have lost top receiver Lawrence Cager following ankle surgery. The depth at the position took another blow when freshman George Pickens, who shares the team lead in receptions with Cager, was ejected for fighting in last week's 52-7 win over Georgia Tech. That means Pickens is suspended for the first half of Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 1 LSU.
Simmons feels it's his job to help keep the passing game moving against the Tigers.
“I’m the oldest guy in the room," Simmons said earlier this week. “It’s up to me to put myself on a higher pedestal and try to bring those young guys with me.”
Brian Herrien could face a similar challenge as the senior leader of Georgia's tailbacks.
Leading rusher DÁndre Swift, arguably the team's most difficult player to replace, left last week's game with what coach Kirby Smart said was a bruised shoulder. Swift spent considerable time in the medical tent on the sideline. He emerged without his shoulder pads and missed the remainder of the game.
“I mean, he’s been out there, doing what we’ve asked him to do," Smart said Tuesday. “He’s practicing. He’s just banged up, man. It’s tough, but he’s a warrior. He’s a fighter. We’re expecting him to be able to go.”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron expects Swift will play.
“You know, obviously, in a big game like this, people miraculously get well towards the end of the week," Orgeron said. “So we expect their best players to play."
Swift leads Georgia with 1,204 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Herrien is next with 466 yards and six touchdowns.
There's little experience behind Swift and Herrien. Freshman Zamir White and sophomore James Cook each have shown flashes of big-play potential, but they've combined for only 78 carries.
This is Herrien's third straight SEC championship game. He said he tells younger players to take the same approach as in any other game.
“Just go and play ball," Herrien said. “This is what we do, It's nothing different for us. We've been playing football our whole life. I tell everybody if they're nervous, just go out and play like it's your senior year of high school. That's how we got here so you might as well keep going."
There's also much youth behind Simmons at wide receiver, including freshmen Kearis Jackson and Dominick Blaylock. Simmons will need support from Demetris Robertson, a junior, while waiting for Pickens to join the offense in the second half.
This will be the second straight game Pickens has been held out for the first half. Smart announced following the win over Georgia Tech that Pickens had been benched for the half as punishment for an undisclosed violation of a team rule.
The two infractions made for a difficult week for Pickens, who caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Jake Fromm before his ejection for fighting.
“I think he's responded well," Fromm said, adding Pickens “apologized for his actions" to the team on Sunday.
“You could actually see a step for him growing up and trying to realize his actions affect more than just him, they affect the entire team," Fromm said.
Simmons and Herrien have played most of their careers away from the spotlight.
Herrien worked behind 1,000-yard rushers Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Nick Chubb his first three seasons. Simmons' opportunity came after Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman and Terry Godwin moved on to the NFL.
Simmons had three catches for 52 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown — his first of the season — last week.
“Really awesome, really proud of him to have a big moment against Georgia Tech,” Fromm said. "I know it means a lot to him and thankful he has come along here.''