There were always rumblings about how good Leonard Pope could be, but for a long time Georgia fans were forced to wonder about the mammoth tight end, rather than actually seeing what he could do.
When Pope was in high school at Americus, he was likely the easiest selection to Georgia’s All-State AA team. He led his team to two straight state titles, no surprise when you take a look at the damage he did to teams while a prep star.
In the state title game against Early County in 2001, Pope had three catches for 41 yards, and made a game-changing interception. Early County got just a dose of what Pope had been doing during Americus’ run through the AA Playoffs that season: Pope had eight catches and two interceptions in that season’s playoff games. The season before, Pope totaled 25 receptions for 491 yards and six touchdowns.
Bulldog fans were excited to add Pope to the school’s commitment list his senior season, but they were forced to wait for him to go to Hargrave Military Academy to get his grades in order before he could play for the Dawgs. While in Virginia, Pope made 12 catches for 112 yards and three touchdowns.
Hargrave was no walk in the park for Pope. Actually the walk to the practice field took Hargrave players through the woods for half a mile and up a gravel road to what the players call “The Grave”.
“That walk to that practice field! Man,” Pope exclaimed to Dawg Post contributor Josh Kendall earlier this year. “It was night time when we’d come back, and there’d be deer jumping out in front of us.”
When Pope finally did get to Athens, Martrez Milner and Ben Watson, the entrenched starter at the spot, were already in front of him on the depth chart. Watson, a future first-round selection in the NFL Draft, took most of the snaps in 2003, and because Milner was second on the depth chart, he got what Watson did not get in terms of playing time. That year Pope played in all 14 games, but had only one catch all season.
With Watson gone to the NFL, Pope and Milner squared off for the starting spot during the spring and fall camps of 2004. Milner went into the 2004 season as the starter, but it was clear that it would not take Pope long to overtake him. Milner struggled with injuries and dropped passes, and soon Pope was named the starter.
It turned out that starting took Pope a little getting used to. Against Marshall, Pope’s first career start, the sophomore went catchless. It was worse than that, actually. He dropped a would-be 18-yard touchdown pass from David Green. Then, four plays later, Pope was flagged for jumping offsides.
The learning curve did not end there. Pope’s worst game of the season was also the Dawgs’ worst. Tennessee upset Georgia 19-14, and Pope managed only one catch for eight yards. It was the catch he didn’t make (or make himself available to catch) that was the most difficult to swallow.
Down by five in the closing moments of the game, Georgia starting making what seemed to be another Greene-guided game-winning drive. It was not to be, however, as Pope’s final lesson was learned painfully.
Pope ran the wrong route on the final play of the game. Greene threw the ball to the correct spot, but Pope was not where he was supposed to be, and the Bulldogs suffered their first upset since Florida beat them in 2003.
“We were just trying to get it in play where Leonard had a chance to get it. At that moment about all you can do is put it up for grabs. David Greene was figuring on Leonard staying on his landmark, but Leonard bent it inside a defender,” Richt said.
The loss, which placed Georgia behind the eight-ball for winning the SEC East, was difficult to take. It served as a wake up call for Pope.
From the next game forward, Pope tore through the competition. He caught at least one touchdown pass in five of the Dawgs’ last six regular season games, including two in the Bulldogs’ emotional victory over Florida. That came after not catching a touchdown pass in his first 17 games. Pope had become what Georgia coaches and fans were waiting for, and the opposition feared – an all-but-impossible target to cover.
“Right about the midpoint of last season we knew he was going to be able to do some special things,” said tight ends coach David Johnson. “A guy that can move like Leonard, and has his size – he can use all of that to his advantage. You add all of that to his demeanor and the way he approaches the game, and I think that you have someone special.”
Pope’s status as a star was cemented with his performance against the Gators. His two touchdowns, three catches and 90 yards were career highs at the time. It was Pope’s best game of the season.
“When he first got here he had it kind of hard. He had dropped a couple of balls, but that Florida game changed his life,” said Georgia safety Greg Blue. “After he caught those two touchdown passes – since then he’s been the man.”
“To be one of the key reasons we beat Florida – I know everyone that lost to Florida in the last few years wish they had made those plays against Florida,” Blue concluded.
“He’s fun to watch,” Head Coach Mark Richt said. “He’s a very talented player. I think he’s a special talent, and he’s definitely a guy who can help any quarterback.”
That’s a good thing for D.J. Shockley – the starting quarterback this season.
All during spring practice and fall camp in 2005, Shockley used Pope consistently as the number one target in the offense. The two worked constantly – Pope caught hundreds of footballs from Shockley during fall camp, most while standing about ten yards away. Instead of Shockley throwing the ball to the back-up quarterbacks while the rest of the team worked on special teams, the senior quarterback tossed almost every pre-practice ball to Pope. The pair was getting even more familiar with one another.
“We kind of grew up together with the (No. 2 offense),” Pope said of his relationship with Shockley.
“He’s a huge part of our offense,” Shockley said. “He’s a huge part of my confidence. I can get the ball to him even when it’s not supposed to go to him and be comfortable that he’ll make a play.”
“We knew he was a great athlete,” said tight ends coach David Johnson. “But his blocking has really stepped up; it’s something that he’s really improved on. Blocking was something that he was really never asked to do in high school. It was so foreign to him because it is so unnatural. Running and catching the football is very natural for Leonard.”
“Then we saw him coming along with the blocking and start to understand coverages,” Johnson added.
Pope’s unbelievable size is another attribute that separates him from other tight ends.
“He’s 6-7, and that speaks for itself, but he’s also got great hands. He’s so big – I’m 6-2, and it’s hard for me to cover him. Shockley just throws the ball over the top, and it’s hard to get it because he’s 6-7,” said Johnson. “There’s a bunch of big tight ends, so I don’t know if he’s extraordinary in that sense, but I do know that quarterbacks like that because they like that target.”
Pope’s role in the offense was more fluid than the other players on the team. Because of the focus on him, not only by the defense, Pope had to feel what was happening in a game and roll with it. He and Shockley played a form of cat-and-mouse with the defense – making decisions on the run that determine where both will go on the play. The plan worked: Pope ended 2005 with 541 yards and four touchdowns on 39 receptions, good for most on the team.
“There is no particular given thing that Leonard does on each play,” Johnson said. “He has to read leverage, know where the depths of his routes are with the quarterback, and understand where he is supposed to be in the passing game. We try to plan on things – you try to have a plan with the different looks that you get.”
The start of the 2005 season Pope’s production started off slowly, but that was because teams were keying on him – they were not going to allow Shockley to beat them by moving the ball up and down the field with Pope. But defenses could not continue holding Pope down the entire season. Pope's production during the last four games of the season was impressive: He had 20 catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s a great target, and he’s one of the best competitors out there,” said Johnson. “His work ethic – he just works, and that’s important to him.”
Now Pope turns his attentions to the NFL where he will try to follow a recent string of former Bulldogs that are not vital to thier squads.