ATHENS – Elijah Holyfield was pretty high on the Auburn Tigers his senior year at Woodward Academy. They recruited him hard and really emphasized the fact that he could come there and be their featured running back.
As we all know now, Holyfield chose to come to Georgia instead. Three years later, he finds himself at the front of what has been a long line of great backs.
That legacy, as much as anything else, is what brought Holyfield here.
“It was a very big deal,” said Holyfield, who was a 4-star prospect with more than 30 scholarship offers to Power 5 schools. “I’ve watched Georgia football for a long time and I really loved all the Georgia backs. It started with Knowshon Moreno and then watching Todd (Gurley) and then Sony (Michel) and Nick (Chubb) and playing with them as well. That had a lot to do with my decision to come here.”
It was the same with Holyfield’s backfield mate, D’Andre Swift. Though from the relative distant outpost of Philadelphia, Swift and his father Darren researched colleges, the utilization of running backs in their offenses and the success of those backs at the next level. Their worksheet on Georgia went check, check and check.
Gurley was already starring for the Los Angeles Rams before Chubb and Michel joined him in the NFL ranks after last year’s draft. Both are now starters for the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, respectively.
“I think it helps tremendously to have those guys (in the NFL), and even the history of Robert Edwards, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis, Herschel (Walker), just back after back after back after back,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Now it’s probably more prominent than it’s ever been because of the stage that Todd is on and what he’s been able to do, and Nick and Sony’s exposure last year through the National Championship game.”
One key, though, a prospect much check his ego at the door to Georgia’s running back room. The Swifts chose the Bulldogs in part because running backs coach Dell McGee made them no promises. They were told D’Andre would have to compete for any playing time he received, and they knew full well that seniors Chubb and Michel would be competing for those carries as well.
As it turned out, there were plenty to go around. Chubb and Michel each rushed for more than 2,500 yards between them and Swift added another 618 as the third-string, and special-package back.
Now it’s Swift and Holyfield who have moved up into those primary roles, and they’re proving worthy of their esteemed predecessors. Heading into Saturday’s game against Auburn’s stout defensive line, the two backs are sharing the load in the way that surely makes Chubb and Michel proud. Through nine games, their stats are almost identical. Holyfield has 674 yards on 103 carries and Swift has 622 on 99. They’ve scored 12 touchdowns between them, Swift leading the way with seven.
Just ask Kentucky about their effectiveness. Swift had TD runs of 83 and 20 yards in a 156-yard performance this past Saturday, while Holyfield added 115 yards also ran for a score.
“We both wanted to come out and prove ourselves this year and have a really good year,” Holyfield said. “Both of us have had a pretty good one so far.”
Right now, the ability of those two backs to step into the roles abandoned by Chubb and Michel is the biggest difference between Georgia and Auburn. Those two teams met for the SEC Championship last December at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the Tigers have found replacing Kerryon Johnson more difficult.
While the Bulldogs are leading the SEC in rushing at 233.8 yards a game, the Tigers are limp into Sanford Stadium 12th in the league (155.2). Their leading rusher is a freshman, JaTarvious Whitlow (71.3 ypg).
Such a dropoff was apparent even last year. When Johnson came into the SEC title game gimpy from a season’s worth of rock-toting for the Tigers, the drop off to Kam Martin was apparent and significant.
“The great thing is we’re always fresh,” said Swift, who had 16 carries to Holyfield’s 18 on Saturday. “So it doesn’t matter who starts the series or comes in, they’re always fresh. I think our 1-2 punch is one of the best in the country.”
Sharing the load is something Georgia has been able to use to its advantage. While a crowded depth chart often chases talented recruits elsewhere, the Bulldogs employ a join-the-club and stay-healthy approach. That’s how they were able to land 5-star recruits such as Swift and Zamir White, last year’s No. 1-rated running back, in back-to-back succession. Gurley and Keith Marshall, and Chubb and Michel also signed in the same recruiting class.
Said Smart: “If you’re a premier back in the country and you say, ‘I want to go somewhere that I can learn to play in a pro style, catch the ball in the backfield, and I also want to be able to (pass) protect so that I can increase my value, and I also want to have durability where I’m not going to be beat up when I come out,’ there’s nowhere better to go. These guys recognize that, and that’s why Dell (McGee) has been able to recruit at a high level.”
There’s another upside from which Georgia benefits. While all these running backs embrace the all-for-the-team approach, they’re also competitive. Those game-day reps are precious and they remain ever-vigilant when it comes for the right to get them.
“That definitely helps,” Holyfield said. “When you have somebody just as good as you playing next to you, it pushes you every single day. I know I can’t take a day off because he’s not going to take a day off. It’s that type of thing. It motivates us.”
Said Swift: “We are competitive, but that’s my brother; that’s my man. We do a lot together on and off the field. We complement each other real well.”
Seems to be a Georgia thing.