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By the Numbers: UGA running game could have breakout performance vs. Tennessee

Brandon Adams

Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. This week’s edition of By the Numbers looks at Georgia’s running backs.

 Georgia’s running backs entered the season knowing they faced a tremendous task. It would not be easy to replace the productivity UGA lost when last year’s leaders, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — a duo that combined for more than 8,000 yards over their four-year careers — moved on to the NFL.

So far, the work put in by sophomore D’Andre Swift, juniors Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien and freshman James Cook has been commendable. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in rushing, but a deeper look at the numbers suggests there’s room for improvement and the best from this quartet may still be to come.

For instance, so-called “explosive runs” are an area where UGA isn’t performing as well this season as it did in 2017. Last year UGA was first in the nation in running plays of twenty or more yards with 47, but is just tied for 17th through four games this year with nine. Furthermore, four of those 20+ yard runs have come from wide receivers.

However, there are some signs that more big plays could be on the way from running backs — particularly Holyfield, who had three runs of 17 or more yards against Missouri, and a 66-yard touchdown run vs. Middle Tennessee State. No doubt Bulldogs fans would love to see more of that vs. Tennessee Saturday.

DawgNation would probably also like to see improved efficiency from running backs as well.

Efficiency in college football is typically defined by advances stats proponents as a percentage of successful plays. A successful play is determined by the amount of yards gained compared to the yards necessary for a first down or touchdown. Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly defines success rate as: 50 percent of necessary yards on first down, 70 percent of necessary yards on second down and 100 percent of necessary yards on third and fourth downs.

Using that definition, UGA’s success rate on carries for Swift, Holyfield, Herrien and Cook so far this season is 43 percent — a mark that trails UGA’s success rate on running plays in 2017 (46.5 percent), but is still ahead of the national average from a season ago (42 percent).

UGA fans’ expectations are — of course — to be well above average. In fact, UGA fans would like to see running backs perform as well as Chubb and Michel a season ago.

There’s still time for that to happen.

The back most likely to improve could be Swift simply because he could be in line for a lot more carries. Through four games Swift has just 40 carries — an average of 10 per game. Last year’s leading rusher — Chubb — had 223 carries over 15 games for an average of just under 15 per contest. If Swift is healthy, expect him to be used more — including maybe this Saturday vs. the Vols.

That’s a possibility Swift — who’s been rumored to be battling a nagging injury — is preparing for.

“I’m definitely in the treatment room making sure I’m healthy, Swift told reporters this week. “I know I’m going to get more carries than I did last year so I’m making sure I’m ready and healthy, physically.”

An area in which Swift could be particularly valuable to UGA once he’s ready for more carries is on first down. UGA’s first down success rate on carries for its top four running backs is just 39 percent — including 28 runs of three yards or fewer.

That’s a number that clearly needs improvement.
The good news is the Vols might be the perfect opponent for a UGA running game still seeking its footing.

Tennessee’s defense is last in the SEC allowing opponents 4.57 yards per rush, and the Vols have allowed five plays of 20 or more yards. Only Florida (with nine 20+ yard rushing plays) has been worse among SEC teams.

Saturday could be a day in which Georgia’s running backs break out in a big way. But either way, Swift is confident it’ll happen eventually.

“I’m looking for that breakout game, but it’ll come. I’m not really trying to press it, but it’ll come.”

UGA fans can’t wait to see it.