ATHENS – The greatest characteristic of a great football player, it would seem, is that when the other team knows he’s going to get the ball, and everyone in the building knows he’s going to get the ball, and then he does get the ball, he still runs for a 50-yard touchdown.
That’s Georgia’s Nick Chubb.
North Carolina knows all about Chubb from last season. Or ask Louisville, TCU and Georgia Tech what it was like to have been on the receiving end of the Chubb long-distance burst. Even Alabama, in a game it otherwise dominated in 2015, saw Chubb go through the middle for 83 yards.
But it’s also the measure of a great player that he’s not just a home-run hitter. When Georgia has needed a few precious but painful yards, or has needed those long drives that use clock, Chubb has done it. Think back to the Missouri and Arkansas games in his freshman season in 2014, to those two improbable wins after Todd Gurley’s sudden suspension.
The brilliance of Chubb is the stress he puts on a defense. At 5-foot-10 and 228 pounds, he’s got the build to pound into the line for a few yards. He’s got the speed and athleticism to make plays in space and turn those short runs into forever runs. And he’s got the endurance to make his best run when the defense is winded, as North Carolina saw with five minutes to go in last year’s opener.
It’s unlikely that Chubb, now a senior, will pass Herschel Walker as Georgia’s all-time leading rusher. Chubb would need 1,835 yards to equal Walker’s 5,259 career yards. But it’s also not out of the question for Chubb, who stands second on the all-time list.
All this Chubb has done, mind you, while dealing with: a significant left knee injury in 2015 that caused Chubb to miss seven games but would have ended some careers; a high ankle sprain on his left leg in 2016; an offensive line that struggled the past two seasons; a passing game that also wasn’t too great the past two seasons; offensive playcalling that could have been better; and sharing time in the backfield with Sony Michel.
What kind of career Chubb will have in the pros? That’s a discussion for another day. As for how important he is to Georgia right now, well, that should be inarguable.
Reminder: This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
2. NICK CHUBB
WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: See above. Yes, if Chubb went down, the Bulldogs would still have Michel, Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift. But this is Nick Chubb we’re talking about. A superstar, a workhorse and a home-run hitter. Not only that, but his presence in the locker room, on the sideline and in the huddle is vital. He’s a quiet leader — increasingly not so quiet — one who teammates young and old listen to and respect.
FACTOID: The most prolific year of Chubb’s career remains his freshman season, when he had 1,547 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
BEST CASE: Chubb exceeds those 2014 numbers and breaks Walker’s career rushing mark. When you look at that freshman season, 1,836 doesn’t seem so unattainable. The offensive line and playcalling would have to improve. Chubb would have to stay healthy. Even then, Chubb’s freshman stats benefited from Gurley’s absence and Michel being hurt, so he had to be a workhorse in many games. There’s no reason for anyone to root for that this year. Still, Chubb’s career average is 6.4 yards per rush, which would require 287 carries this season. The last Georgia player to carry that many times was Willie McClendon in 1978. Record aside, Chubb staying healthy all season would be great news for the offense.
WORST CASE: Injury, of course. But other than that, it would be a repeat of last year, when the struggles of the offensive line and the offense in general prevented Chubb from being his game-breaking self. After averaging 7.1 yards per rush as a freshman and 8.1 as a sophomore, Chubb managed just 5.0 yards per rush as a junior in 2016.
FINAL WORD: We’re sort of running out of things to say about Chubb at this point. The good news is the season is just around the corner, and there will be many more things to write.