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Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Running back Elijah Holyfield was all smiles during Georgia's G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium in April.

Any chance that Elijah Holyfield earns a starting role for Bulldogs?

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DawgNation:

What’s your opinion on Elijah Holyfield starting in the backfield this year? Will he remain a runner-up?
What’s your opinion on Elijah Holyfield starting in the backfield this year? Will he remain a runner-up?

— Mike Wilson / Griffin Ga

Thanks for writing in, Mike. And, as you might’ve guessed, yes, I expect Elijah Holyfield will remain in a backup role — or runner-up, as you say — this season. That is not to say he won’t stay pretty busy, however.

As most Georgia fans are aware, the rather prominent job of primary ball carrier for the Bulldogs this coming fall is slated to be played by sophomore D’Andre Swift. There are several factors that make this evident, not the least of which is Swift’s status as the leading returning rusher from Georgia’s 2017 team. We all saw this player’s tremendous potential as he played a backup role to the Bulldogs’ No. 2 and No. 3 all-time rushers in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively, as a true freshman last season. Despite playing third fiddle to those rather accomplished backs, Swift managed to gain 618 yards and score 3 touchdowns. His per-carry average of 7.6 yards was second only to Michel (7.9).

The fact that Swift didn’t participate in the G-Day Game on April 21 also is fairly telling. Yes, Swift was battling a groin injury that dogged him for most of the 15-practice spring session. But that’s typically not the kind of malady that will keep a good back grounded, at least not during the throes of an actual season. Swift stayed on the sideline because of his value to the team, which is tremendous as the only truly proven back when it comes to carrying the ball in the heat of meaningful competition.

That said, I don’t believe Holyfield to be a warm body merely occupying the space until others step in. As I’ve reminded folks in previous articles, Holyfield came to Georgia a highly recruited, elite back, and he averaged a healthy 5.9 yards a tote last year and 5.8 in his career. As demonstrated often, he’s a strong, tough back who is also sneaky with his moves at the line of scrimmage and he has speed downfield. The same goes for position mate Brian Herrien, who is also a rising junior.

But Georgia has continued to recruit running backs at a level that’s in another stratosphere compared to most programs. Hence, 5-star tailback Zamir White and James Cook, the No. 3-rated all-purpose back in America, will join the competition this fall. And while White couldn’t participate in contact work as an early enrollee in the spring while recovering from knee surgery, he was able to do enough on-field work to get Georgia’s coaches and players excited about his potential. The Bulldogs will be eager to get a long, hard look at both the newbies when preseason camp opens in August.

Meanwhile, Georgia knows what it has in Holyfield, especially after he carried most of the load in spring practice and, to a lesser extent, in the G-Day Game. No, it wasn’t a great scrimmage for him. He had 23 yards on 5 carries and caught 3 passes for 14 yards against what proved to be a stout first-team defense. But for Georgia’s coaches, it was more about what he did in the five weeks of spring ball that led up to that, which according to coach Kirby Smart was quite impressive.

We know Holyfield ran the ball with authority late in games last season. We’ve also seen that he needs to work on catching the ball out of the backfield and all the other idiosyncrasies of the running back position. But he proved last season to be a significant asset on special teams, not just as a returner (see last year’s 90-yard kickoff return versus Notre Dame, nullified by penalty) but also on coverage units.

So look for Holyfield to play a prominent role with the Bulldogs in 2018. Whether it’s a starring one will depend on how things break after the season gets under way.

Thanks for writing in.

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