ATHENS — Georgia has developed a reputation as RBU in part because it usually features more than one player in the backfield.
Usually that has been limited to two primary running backs. But thanks to the work of junior Brian Herrien this season, that might increasingly become a three-pronged approach for the Bulldogs.
Herrien looked like the Bulldogs’ best back for one day at least this Saturday. In the 38-12 win over Tennessee, the 6-foot, 210-pound junior from Douglasville averaged a team-best 6.2 yards per carry. More importantly, he was the one carrying the rock during a critical stretch of the fourth quarter in which the Bulldogs secured the victory in a game-defining 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive that consumed 7:39 off the clock.
“He did a good job; I thought he took advantage of his opportunities,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I wish he had gotten to cash that touchdown in. But he had run the ball several times in a row and we wanted to change it up, and it probably paid off to get a fresh runner in there.”
D’Andre Swift capped off the drive with a 14-yard touchdown run. But it Herrien who did the heavy lifting on the way down the field.
Coming into the game just as the Georgia passed midfield on extended the possession, Herrien twice made runs that resulted in first downs. His first went for 11 yards on second-and-6. The second was for six yards on third-and-2 that included a spin-move out of what should’ve been a Tennessee tackle-for-loss. There was also another nine-yard rush, and Herrien came out of the game after his 4-yard run got the Bulldogs to the Tennessee 14.
With the defense sufficiently softened, Swift scored on the next play. Herrien finished with nine carries for 56 yards. Swift added 50 on 12 carries and Elijah Holyfield was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 78 yards on 16 attempts.
“He’s a good football player,” Smart said of Herrien. “He’s really been an asset for our team, on offense and on special teams. He made the plays that counted the other day. He provided a spark and juice that sometimes he doesn’t get an opportunity to because he’s on the sideline.”
As ever, the Bulldogs tend to go with the hot hand when the game is on the line. Holyfield got the first start of his career in the Tennessee game, while Swift has gotten the nod in Georgia’s other four contests. But, as a group, they’re being as Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were through five games last season.
The narrative on Georgia so far this season has been that it isn’t running the ball with the authority that it did in 2017. In fact, the Bulldogs are actually out-pacing last year’s team to this point. So far, Georgia has run the ball 210 times for 1,252 yards. This time last year, the rushing numbers were 238 attempts for 1,187 yards.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are spreading the wealth through more backs. Holyfield and Swift each have 52 carries through five games. Herrien has half that at 26, while freshman James Cook has added 23.
The hope, of course, is that Georgia’s running backs will avoid injuries and stay fresher longer — into games and throughout the season. Holyfield, for one, believes that’s happening.
“I think it will pay off in the long run, when we’re still fresh at the end of the season,” said Holyfield, who is coming off his first start of the season and leads the backs with a 7.1 yards, per-carry average. “I always feel really good the whole game. There has not been a point in any game where I’ve felt dog-tired.”
It’s also worth pointing out that Swift — expected to be Georgia premier back this season — has yet to be fully healthy in 2018 He has 240 yards and is averaging 4.6 yards a rush. Holyfield leads the team 368 yards, Herrien has 156 yards and is averaging 6 yards a rush.
Cook, a freshman who has proven deserving of opportunities, is averaging 4.7 yards a carry but is doing his best work as a receiver out of the backfield. He has 6 receptions for 59 yards.
As a team, Georgia’s averaging 250.4 yards rushing a game. That is second only to Kentucky in the SEC.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has taken notice
“It is two things: They are ahead and they do a great job staying ahead of the chains,” Mason told reporters this week. “When you stay ahead of the chains, you stay on the field When you stay on the field, there are enough balls for everybody. That is the simple formula right there. Having enough snaps where you can stay on the field and utilize the depth and talent that you have.”
Georgia’s fans will tell you that the Bulldogs have struggled early in games lately and seem to lacked an overall consistency on offense. Only Alabama (54.2 ppg) is scoring at a higher clip that Georgia (43.2) in the SEC so far this season.
But there seems like there may be another level that Georgia’s offense has yet to achieve. The Bulldogs are pleasantly playing with a gimpy left tackle in Andrew Thomas (ankle) and with Ben Cleveland out at right guard (broken leg).
Meanwhile, pass protection issues have Georgia playing both Jake Fromm and Justin Fields at quarterback. Both signal-callers are playing great, but Fields’ mobility helps slow opposing defenses’ pass rush.
“I think right now we’re still trying to find our identity on the offensive side of the ball,” Thomas admitted this week. “That’s the only difference.”
Smart said he doesn’t care who gets the carries — or the snaps at quarterback, for that matter — as long as the bottom line is being met.
That is being a tough and physical offense that is out-scoring the other team.
“I’ve got ultimate confidence in all our backs,” Smart said. “If they need to carry it 30, they could each do it. I don’t know if they could do it for a whole year, but they could do it for a game. That’s why you have the backs you have. That’s why you have the ability to use different backs. That’s why we hand the ball off to the receivers.
“We’re sharing the workload when it comes to rushing because we want to be able to spread the ball out. It’s a long season, and you want to be able to be hard to defend.”
It’s working so far.