ATHENS — When it’s said that Georgia can never have it all come together at the same time — performance, coaching and health — they must be talking about the tailback position.
Consider through the years all the various maladies and malfeasance that have hit Georgia’s tailbacks. A significant knee injury seemingly every year (Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley). A high ankle sprain (Gurley again). A bad shoulder injury (Sony Michel). A suspension for signing autographs (Gurley again). A suspension for marijuana on the way to an SEC Freshman of the Year season (Isaiah Crowell).
Then consider that none of that came in 2016, when Georgia was remarkably healthy at tailback, with Chubb and Michel missing a combined one game — Michel missing the opener after the ATV accident. (Chubb also had just 1 carry against Tennessee because of an ankle injury.)
It was the healthiest season this decade for Georgia’s tailbacks. And yet the team still only finished 50th nationally in rushing yards, and ninth in the SEC, thanks to a variety of factors that have been examined endlessly on this site.
Two factors you can’t really blame much: Chubb and Michel. Oh, they’ll say they were at fault too, and could’ve done more, but that’s just being good teammates. And yes, it’s possible that Chubb, even after the 222-yard season opener, wasn’t quite his old self at times this season. Maybe there was a run here or there where he could have broken a tackle more, or gotten to the next level. Chubb’s season average (5.0 yards per carry) was well below his sophomore and freshman years, while Michel’s average (5.5) was more in line with his previous averages.
But Chubb still finished with 1,130 yards, which even around Georgia shouldn’t be taken for granted. Michel had 840, which shouldn’t be shrugged off either. No, let’s remember what Jim Chaney — who to his credit doesn’t pass the buck — said in his most recent (rare) media appearances.
Before the Liberty Bowl, on the time Chubb and Michel came to his office: “You’ve got two guys there that are competitive as heck and wanted the football. Obviously, they basically said hey, Jim, quit doing too much and give me the ball and let me try to win the game for us. … They got some things off their chest, it was good and quite honestly they were right.”
And on signing day, when asked what he’d like to see improve the most next season: “I think I’d like to see us ultimately block better. I think blocking is a lost art sometimes. We play fast, and we do things like that, and that’s how we strategically attack defenses nowadays in modern college football. But inevitably you’ve got to line up and block somebody. So I’d love to leave spring feeling like we were a much better blocking football team.”
And if that happens, Georgia should run the ball a lot better this year, because the tailback position is once again an embarrassment of riches. Here’s our pre-spring look at the two backfield spots:
- Returning starters: Nick Chubb, Sr.; Sony Michel, Sr.
- Others returning: Brian Herrien, Soph.; Elijah Holyfield, Soph.
- Early enrollees: None.
- On the way: D’Andre Swift, Fr.
- Analysis: Chubb started 11 games last year and Michel is listed as the other starter because he should be. These two are, when healthy, going to have featured roles in the offense. And when Chaney also said he wanted to “freshen up” the offense, that may include using Michel in different roles, perhaps in some of the plays they used Isaiah McKenzie last year. The only question is how the depth chart shakes out behind them. Swift, given his speed and playmaking ability, also could get some of those McKenzie carries. (McKenzie had 19 carries last year, mostly out of the jet sweep.) Herrien’s playing time tailed off a bit last year, but he had a spectacular start, and his 3 rushing touchdowns were the third-most on the team. Holyfield had a surprisingly quiet season, as his preseason ankle injury set him behind Herrien, who took full advantage. Herrien and Holyfield’s skill sets complement each other well, in much the same way as Chubb and Michel. The question this year is how much, if any, Swift includes himself in the mix, and how that ultimately shakes out.
- Bottom line: Assuming they stay healthy — and at tailback that’s always a dicey assumption — Chubb and Michel are basically co-starters. Herrien enters the spring with an edge for the third spot based on his experience, but Holyfield is still very talented and should benefit from extra reps. And they both better do well in the spring (when Chubb and Michel won’t need to get a bunch of reps) because when Swift arrives, he has the talent to push Herrien or Holyfield, or both.
- Returning starters: Christian Payne, Sr.
- Others returning: Nick Moore, Jr.; Turner Fortin, Soph.
- Early enrollees: None.
- On the way: None on scholarship.
- Analysis: Payne not only is a very good blocker, but has become a good pass-catcher: He had 8 catches for 62 yards and a touchdown last year. What Georgia hasn’t gotten out of the fullback position the past few years is carries. Payne and Glenn Welch, the top backup the last couple years, combined for zero carries. But with the tailbacks around, that’s perhaps understandable.
- Bottom line: Payne is an underrated asset to Georgia’s run game. When he was in there last year and the lead blocker, the tailback behind him usually got room to run.
PREVIOUSLY IN DEPTH CHART ANALYSIS SERIES
Safeties | Cornerbacks | Outside linebackers | Inside linebackers | Defensive line | Place-kicking and kickoff specialist | Punters | Return specialists and long snapper | Offensive tackles | Guards | Centers | Tight ends | Wide receivers