Can freshmen James Cook, Zamir White meet standard set by UGA running backs?

Georgia football-UGA-Zamir-White-running backs-James Cook-D'Andre Swift
Zamir White, shown in action during his sophomore season at Scotland High School in North Carolina, gives Georgia yet another 5-star-rated running back on its roster.

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Do you think James Cook and Zamir White can continue the standard set by Chubb and Michel?

― William Cerros

Homer, Ga.

Mr. Cerros, I love this question, because it gives me a chance to talk about one of my favorite football subjects: tailbacks. And Georgia tailbacks in particular.

I don’t even know if you can really call them tailbacks anymore. Technically, Georgia is rarely in an I-formation anymore. Most of the time, the Bulldogs’ backs line up alongside or behind a quarterback in the shotgun formation or in a split backfield with another running back or perhaps a fullback. Fullbacks, by the way, are kind of going the way of the typewriter. I don’t believe Georgia even has one on scholarship anymore.

For the record, Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and all those other backs the Bulldogs have had refer to Georgia as “Running Back U.” So I guess that’s what we should probably go with. And as everyone knows, the Bulldogs have several running backs on scholarship at the moment. Five, in fact. That’s the same number they had last year before Chubb and Michel graduated. As you mentioned, they were replaced by incoming freshmen James Cook and Zamir “Zeus” White, who already are enrolled.

To answer your question succinctly, yes, I believe Cook and White can continue the standard set by Chubb and Michel. But first they’ll have to get past those other three backs ― D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield ― and that will be no easy task. Swift is a sophomore and Herrien and Holyfield are juniors, and all three have played extensively ― not to mention trained and studied extensively ― before Cook and White ever showed up. When spring practice begins next month, the new guys will be lining up behind those three veterans, plus a couple of veteran walk-ons) for every drill.

That said, as coach Kirby Smart ― and really any Power 5 coach worth his weight in salt ― has demonstrated, the Bulldogs are going to play the most productive players, no matter what year they are or what level of experience they have. And in Cook and White, Georgia has landed another pair of extremely high-pedigree backs.

In fact, not only did the Bulldogs get the nation’s consensus No. 1-rated running back in White, of Laurinburg, N.C., but they signed Cook, rated No. 3 in the country at the position. So it’s actually very similar to 2014, when both Chubb and Michel came to Georgia as 5-star prospects. They, of course, left as the Bulldogs’ No. 2 and 5 rushers of all time with more than 8,000 yards and 80 touchdowns between them.

That’s a tough act to follow. There are some who believe that Swift, who came from Philadelphia, might be even better than both of them. It remains to be seen if he can run between the tackles the way Chubb and even Michel did, but he might be even shiftier and, ahem, swifter in the open field. The durability questions can never be answered until a player is in a situation in which he’s asked to go onto the field and absorb that physical punishment week after week. Chubb and Michel both drew high marks in that regard, and they both dealt with injuries.

As for these two freshmen specifically, White is recovering from a knee injury. That’s the bad news. The good news was he traveled to Athens in December to have surgery on his right ACL performed by UGA doctors, and as an early enrollee, his rehabilitation is being supervised by Ron Courson, the Bulldogs’ sports medicine director of international renown.

That can only help toward getting White back on the field, which he should have an opportunity to do during the season, if not the preseason. With knee procedures being what they are now, White eventually should be able to return to his previous form, which some in the program have said should be along the lines of Gurley when it comes to size, strength, speed and power. He’s every bit of the 6-foot, 210 pounds that he was listed, and then some, and can run the 100 meters in 10.85 seconds.

Cook is a little less ballyhooed, but he also played in a tougher high school division at Miami Central of Florida’s Class AAAAAA. The brother of former Florida State star and Minnesota Vikings’ back Dalvin Cook, he is smaller (5-11, 183) and shiftier and should make a nice complement to White if they develop into the primary running back tandem. That might not be just yet. They might have to bide their time.

But if either one beats out any of these other backs as a freshman, then Running Back U is going to be in for another great chapter.

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