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(Hyosub Shin/AJC)
There is no mystery about who will be Georgia's featured back in 2019. It'll be D'Andre Swift, as it was most of last season.

SPRING PREVIEW: D’Andre Swift will lead Georgia backs in bid to carry on RBU reputation

Chip Towers

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part VII: The Running Backs

This is Part 7 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — When it comes to Georgia’s running game in 2019, it’s not about D’Andre Swift.

Swift is a given. Swift is going to give you at least 6 yards a carry. He’s going to catch the football out of the backfield and he’s going to bust the long one ever so often. He’s a proven commodity, the real deal, and he’ll be the Bulldogs’ star attraction in 2019.

Then what?

That’s the real question. If Georgia’s well-deserved reputation as Running Back U — or Tailback U as others insist it is — has proven anything to us over the years, it’s that it takes more than one great back for this mean machine to run the way it’s supposed to run. For every Tim Worley there’s a Rodney Hampton; for every Garrison Hearst, there’s a Terrell Davis; for every Todd Gurley, there’s a Keith Marshall; for every Nick Chubb, a Sony Michel; and for Swift last year there was Elijah Holyfield.

Georgia football-Spring Preview-Battle intense to become other half of D'Andre Swift's duo-Georgia Bulldogs
Brian Herrien has been extraordinarily productive as a backup running back at Georgia, rushing for 923 yards and scoring eight touchdowns while averagin 5.3 yards a carry. (Brant Sanderlin/AJC)

Lest we forget, while Swift wowed us all with his highlight reel runs and consistent production, Holyfield was right there with him every step of the way. In fact, they both finished as 1,000-yard rushers last year, Swift with 1,049 and Holyfield with 1,018. They actually had the exact same per-carry average — 6.4 yards.

That gave Georgia the modern-day rarity of producing a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in consecutive seasons, as Chubb (1,345) and Michel (1,227) did the same the previous year. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs led the SEC in rushing at 238.8 yards per game in 2018.

Georgia expected Holyfield to be back to carry on his end of the deal this year. But the junior from Atlanta decided instead to go ahead and take his NFL shot. And while that didn’t exactly leave the Bulldogs in a bind, there now is a notable vacancy for the other half of the dynamic duo role.

Leading the way to fill that role is rising senior Brian Herrien. Herrien was the Bulldogs’ third-leading rusher last year, finishing with 295 yards on 50 carries and averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Herrien also has proved to be adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, hauling in eight passes last year, including one that went for a 17-yard touchdown against Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

Herrien would appear to check all the boxes. At 6-0, 210-pounds, he’s a bit bigger than the 5-9, 215-pound Swift. And Herrien has a wealth of experience, especially when compared to the rest of the backs. He appeared in all 14 games last year, and has played in 40 of a possible 43 the last three seasons.

Of course, Herrien is not “the people’s choice.” That’d be redshirt freshman Zamir White. Known as “Zeus” in high school, White was the heir apparent in the parade of talent that has come to Athens to play running back in recent years. He was No. 1-rated back in America coming out of Scotland High in Laurinburg, N.C.

But White has never been able to take a snap for the Bulldogs because of knee injuries. First, he tore the ACL in one knee during the playoffs his senior year in high school. Then, no sooner was he cleared from that injury than White tore his other ACL covering a punt in Georgia’s preseason camp last August. That’s expected to keep White sidelined from contact at least until this coming August.

James Cook also showed flashes as a true freshman in 2018, averaging a team best 6.9 yards per carry while playing a specialized role in all but one game. But the speedy back with the shifty moves had foot surgery shortly after the season ended and his status for spring ball is uncertain.

Because Holyfield and those other three backs were all expected to be competing for playing time this season, Georgia came up short in its bid to land the nation’s top running back prospects again this year. John Emery, a longtime commitment from New Orleans, ended up flipping back to home-state LSU, and a bitter battle for Trey Sanders saw this year’s top back land at Alabama.

The Bulldogs signed Kenny McIntosh, a big-bodied, 4-star talent out of Ft. Lauderdale who should fit in nicely down the line. Otherwise, though, it looks like it might be The D’Andre Swift Show in 2019.

And that’s OK. But don’t be surprised if Herrien steals a little limelight from time-to-time. The former 3-star prospect from Douglasville has been patiently waiting for that opportunity.

The key is this number — 3,000. No matter how they get to it, if the Bulldogs can rush for 3,000 yards in 2019, they’ll live up to those lofty expectations. And the title of RBU will remain in Athens.

Let’s look closer at the running backs:

RUNNING BACKS

  • Returning starters: D’Andre Swift, 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, junior.
  • Others returning: Brian Herrien, 6-0, 210, senior; James Cook, 5-11, 190, sophomore; Zamir White, 6-0, 200, RFr.; Prather Hudson, 5-11, 195, junior; Ian Donald-McIntyre, 5-10, 207, junior.
  • Early enrollees: None.
  • On the way: Kenny McIntosh, 6-1, 210, freshman; Sevaughn Clark, 6-1, 205, freshman; Anthony Summey, 6-1, 210, freshman.
  • Analysis: The first third of this past season was spent with a lot of people wondering what was wrong with D’Andre Swift. Turns out, a lot. The sophomore from Philadelphia was recovering from double-groin surgery in the off season. And then when he did get back to full speed, ankle and knee injuries slowed him further. In fact, Swift was beat up for much of the season. Nevertheless, he managed to lead the Bulldogs all-purpose yards with 1,346 all-purpose yards and touchdowns scored with 13. Now Swift will enter his junior season as not only the Bulldogs’ featured back, but also a favorite to earn All-America honors and possibly contend for the Heisman Trophy (he carries odds as low as 10-to-1 into the season). For that reason, don’t expect to see a lot of Swift at work in spring practice. Like last year, when he remained sidelined for the entire 15-practice session, it’s doubtful that the Bulldogs will subject Swift to a lot of 11-on-11 contact work. Cook’s action could be limited as well due to off-season foot surgery. So look for spring ball to be dominated by Herrien and tough-as-nails walkon Prather Hudson.
  • Bottom line: Don’t look now, but the depth situation is somewhat precarious at Georgia’s marquee position. Swift battled injuries all last season, Cook is recovering from postseason foot surgery and the recovery of White from surgeries on different knees in a nine-month span leaves his availability and effectiveness in question, especially early in the season. The best news is this: The Bulldogs figure to field one of the best offensive lines in college football in 2019. They also happen to have one of the country’s top quarterbacks at the controls in Jake Fromm. Between that and James Coley taking over as full time offensive coordinator and play-caller, the thought is Georgia might spread the ball around more this season. On that count we need to remember that Swift was the team’s third-leading receiver last year with 32 receptions. Look for that number to go up, too, and a healthy Swift to have a season for the ages.

UP NEXT: Georgia place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship puts the special in special teams.

SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW