ATHENS — Those couple of thousand fans who attended Saturday’s open practice at Sanford Stadium certainly were impressed by what they saw from James Cook. The freshman running back from Miami looked positively electric catching balls out of the backfield and quickly getting around defenders and down the field without being touched.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was impressed, too. He offered his praise with qualifiers, but there was no denying the young back got the head coach’s attention.
“If you just had that practice to go off of, yeah, … he had a really good practice,” Smart said following Tuesday’s practice, the Bulldogs’ fifth of the preseason. “He’s an exciting player. He loves football. He’s tough. He’s not afraid to compete with anybody at 185 pounds. I really like watching the guy play.”
Then came the qualifier.
“To say that he’s more ready than any of those other backs, that’s a long stretch because he has a long way to go,” Smart said.
Obviously Georgia already knows what it has in tailbacks D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien. But coming into preseason camp, the Bulldogs could not be sure in what they had in the two freshman signees, Cook and Zamir White. Cook didn’t arrive on campus until well into July due academic holdups. And though he was an early enrollee, White hasn’t been able to fully participate until now due to his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last fall.
White, who was rated the No. 1 running back in America as a recruiting prospect out of Laurinburg, N.C., appears to be working without limitations but continues to wear a significant metal brace on his right knee.
“I think if you asked him he would want to take the knee brace off,” Smart said Tuesday. “He could take the knee brace off and practice, but it’s precautionary to get him more comfortable. It’s a little rigid and it’s not comfortable for him. He’s not out there feeling like he’s his old self yet. … But he is cleared and he’s safe to practice. He just doesn’t like having that knee brace on.”
Smart was asked if he thought White had defied medical standards by coming back “so quickly” from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He suffered the injury in the North Carolina high school playoffs last November but didn’t undergo surgery until January when he enrolled at UGA.
Smart said while he didn’t believe White to be an extraordinary healer, he does think he has extraordinary commitment and work ethic.
“I don’t know in this day and age you would say (White’s recovery) was quick,” Smart said. “I kind of think he’s on schedule or a little ahead of schedule. He got injured last year in football season. It’s not a miracle he’s back going. He is pretty special when it comes to rehab, buying in, doing wrestling, doing karate, he does all these extra things very much similar like Nick (Chubb) did. That part his effort and all the work is incredible.”
Both freshmen have a lot of experienced players to get past in order to get on the field. But Smart intimated Tuesday that he hasn’t necessary been enthralled with the commitment he’s seen from some of the established starters on the squad. He declined to be specific with regard to what positions he was referring. But he made it clear that some of Georgia’s young players are putting pressure on veterans who might’ve thought their status was solidified.
“I know I can look out there and say, ‘OK, this is a guy who played pretty well last year and he’s not playing to the level I think he can play to,'” Smart said. “And that’s one of the scariest things that can happen to our team. But the good news is that, at a lot of those positions, the guy is just as talented behind him and is scratching and clawing. Maybe he just got here but he’s fighting and eager to learn. Sometimes you get a casual nature about you if you think you know everything and you think you kind of understand everything.”
In the meantime, while a lot of the new arrivals don’t know as much as far as the playbook and the daily routine, they “flash” some exceptional athletic skills, according to Smart, and that in itself is a reason to get them on the field.
Without question, Cook “flashed” during the Bulldogs’ open practice at Sanford Stadium. The thinking is he might flash some more during games this fall.
“He had a pretty good day that day; I would say that day was a little special,” Smart admitted. “When we got back, we watched the tape of that practice and he had a lot of balls. It just happened that way. It wasn’t like it was by design. Like, ‘hey, this is going to be James Cook Feature Day.’ He had some plays that he hit and he looked really good. He had really good GPS numbers. I felt like he did. (But) I can’t say that’s been every practice. It hasn’t stuck out like that.”