TAMPA, Fla. - Leonard Pope has become more than the third option in Georgia's passing game.
In the second half of the season, Pope was the Bulldogs' main man when it came to scoring.
For the season, Pope matched receivers Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson for the team lead with six touchdown receptions.
Considering Pope is a sophomore tight end in his first year as a starter and Brown and Gibson are seniors and longtime starters, it was a notable accomplishment for Pope to claim a share of the team lead in touchdown catches. But Pope's touchdown catches all came in the last six games for No. 8 Georgia (9-2), and no other receiver on the team had more than three touchdowns in that span.
Pope is expected to be a primary receiving target again Saturday when Georgia plays No. 16 Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
The late-season emergence was notable for Pope (6-7, 250), who previously had been better known for his gaffes.
In Georgia's crucial 19-14 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 9, a broken pass route by Pope resulted in an incomplete pass from quarterback David Greene on the final play. Earlier in the game, Pope had a holding call that negated a 93-yard kickoff return by Bryan McClendon.
The Tennessee game was just part of a slow start for Pope, who had no catches in Georgia's first three games and quickly was developing a reputation as a big target with bad hands. Martrez Milner opened the season as the starting tight end, but Pope was pushed into the lineup when Milner was slowed by back spasms.
"I took it as a big opportunity I didn't want to let go by me," Pope said. "I just stayed focused and worked hard. I knew I had a big chance of helping the team out on offense."
Pope had two catches for 49 yards against Louisiana State and he has had three or more catches in five of the last six games.
"He's been very productive," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "He's accomplished more this year than I thought he would, especially the way things started, as we didn't get him as involved as we could have early on. But as a guy makes plays you try to get him a little more involved in the offense."
Based on what he had seen in practice, Richt predicted success for Pope and Milner before the season. Tight end was a position of concern for the Bulldogs after the losses of 2003 seniors Ben Watson and Robert Brannon.
"He's always practiced well," Richt said of Pope. "We thought he could be a force for us. We thought the very same thing about Martrez as well, and we still do, he just had some injury issues and Leonard got going and has really taken advantage of his opportunities."
Pope ranks third on the team with 22 catches for 417 yards, and his average of 19 yards per catch is the best on the team for any player with five or more receptions.
A first-team All-Southeastern Conference pick by The Associated Press and the SEC coaches, Pope had two touchdown catches against Florida in what he said was his favorite game.
"I came out focused for that game because it had boiled down to Georgia and Florida when I was recruited," said Pope, a former standout at Americus High School.
"I chose Georgia because my heart led me here and I had a chance to prove to those guys that I made the right decision."
With Gibson and Brown lined up outside, opposing defenses have to make difficult coverage decisions on Pope, who is bigger than any safety and faster than most linebackers as he roams through the middle of defenses. When teams devote a safety to Pope, Gibson or Brown are left with single coverage.
But before he could become a receiving threat, Pope had to prove he could handle the blocking assignments.
"I have to block first and then fortunately I have a chance to make big plays," Pope said. "I've been able to get the job done."