Georgia’s most important players of 2017: Sony Michel as more than a tailback

Sony Michel-Georgia football
Sony Michel leaps to the pylon for a touchdown last year at Kentucky.

ATHENS, Ga. – Sony Michel usually gets compared to his backfield mate and classmate, Nick Chubb, and it’s usually in the context of their diverging skill sets, and how the Georgia football team uses them as runners.

Well, for the purposes of another exercise, let’s compare Michel to a former Georgia player who also wore No. 1: No, not Isaiah Crowell. It’s not even someone who mainly played offense.

Branden Smith came to Georgia as a five-star prospect, a possible two-way player, and probably to his and the program’s misfortune he mainly played defense. But when he played offense, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Smith was a dynamic presence, averaging 9.5 yards every time he touched the ball. It was mostly on rushes, whether it was reverses or the Wildcat, though he also caught 7 passes for 63 yards.

Now imagine Michel for a second in that kind of role, but with his main job being the backup tailback, where he uses his 222 pounds to navigate the middle of the line. It’s very possible this dual receiver-tailback role could be explored this season. It might have been by now had there been more stability in Georgia’s coaching room.

Mike Bobo was using Michel as an occasional receiver during his freshman year, flexing him out and firing him receiver screens. Then Michel got hurt, and after the season Bobo left. Brian Schottenheimer arrived, and while Michel did catch 26 passes for 270 yards as a sophomore, they were mostly screens and other traditional ways a tailback is used in the passing game. Ditto for last year, when Michel had 22 catches for 149 yards.

This spring, however, we saw Michel working out of the slot at practice, along with sophomore tailback Brian Herrien, tight end Isaac Nauta, receivers Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman and others. So obviously Michel won’t be the only player used that way. But this beat writer is guessing that Jim Chaney and company know Michel is too valuable to be a complimentary tailback to Chubb.

Which makes him an important cog in this year’s offense, and for the team in general.

New starting center Lamont Gaillard was No. 12.

Which brings us to …




WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: Let’s say Michel was removed from the equation, as he was at the outset last year, though he returned quickly. Wouldn’t Herrien move into the backup tailback role, or Elijah Holyfield or D’Andre Swift? And aren’t there plenty of other options at that slot receiver spot? Maybe, but anybody regarding Michel as disposable would be making a huge mistake. Those other young tailbacks are unproven. There are also a lot of “maybes” in the slot receiver role. Michel is a known quantity, who enters this season 10th on Georgia’s all-time rushing list, and that’s despite splitting most of the past three years with Chubb – and with Michel missing six games because of injury. Michel, you’ll recall, was the offensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl. There’s also the leadership part. Michel and Chubb together take a vocal role behind the scenes, and know the offense and the ins and outs. Behind what will be a potentially young offensive line, with young receivers and a sophomore quarterback, Michel’s experience will be vital.

FACTOID: Michel has averaged 5.5 career yards every time he’s rushed the ball, but 9.5 every time he’s caught a pass. He’s also scored a touchdown every 11th time he’s caught a pass, vs. every 25th time he’s run the ball.

BEST CASE: Behind an improved offensive line, Michel (along with Chubb) reaches the 1,000-yard rushing mark. But he also catches between 35-40 passes, reaching around 500 yards in that category, helping fill the hole left by Isaiah McKenzie.

WORST CASE: The young offensive line can’t open holes on a consistent basis, Chaney’s offense isn’t freshened up enough and Michel’s numbers as a senior are rather pedestrian, at least for him.

FINAL WORD: Don’t come away from this thinking we’re advocating for Michel be switched to receiver – or to be on the field constantly, either. It seems there could be more inventive ways to use Michel’s skills, and there’s reason to believe Chaney gets that, too.

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