HOOVER, Ala. –Kirby Smart took a deep breath before answering. The question: What was the level of confidence that Georgia would be able to run the football this year?
“You know, I think in the SEC when you talk about running the ball successfully it comes in different forms and fashions,” Smart said. “Is it a rocket sweep where they pitch the ball, because that’s a pass. All right, you’ve got to find different ways to run the ball. Because if you think you’re going to play the top four defenses in the SEC and pound it down your throat – it doesn’t exist.”
A bit later, Nick Chubb sat at a podium at SEC media days and was asked about improving the running game.
“We always wanted to be a downhill team, we just didn’t do it effectively, I guess,” Chubb said. “So this spring we kind of pushed ourselves, got those big boys up front moving downhill faster.”
That on its face seems like a contradiction: The head coach talking about finding creative ways to run the ball, the star tailback saying there was a need to … well, pound it down the defense’s throat.
It could be as simple as the star tailback showing confidence in himself and his offensive line, and the head coach thinking more pragmatically. But they’re on the same page, clearly, about this: For all the kvetching about Georgia’s passing game, the running game has to get better too.
The sad stat rankings were there for everyone to see last year: 87th in total offense, 97th in passing offense and 50th in rushing offense, despite the presence and relative health of two star tailbacks.
Perhaps this is too simplistic, but it seemed to boil down to a two-pronged problem: The offensive line wasn’t that great, and the playcalling didn’t account for that. Jim Chaney called too many plays that were just handoffs up the middle, too many runs out of obvious run formations, not enough runs out of pass formations to catch the defense off guard.
And Chaney acknowledged that, to his credit, in his pre-Liberty Bowl press conference, referring to “a little contradiction with philosophies.”
When Chubb and Sony Michel went to meet with Chaney after the Florida debacle, when they only carried it a combined 12 games, it’s still not entirely clear what specifically they discussed. It’s a safe guess the tailbacks wanted to know why they didn’t carry it more. But while Chubb talked this week about being a better downhill running team, last season he also seemed to acknowledge that the impediment towards doing that.
Back then, this reporter asked Chubb whether part of the problem was the play calls not going more towards the outside, and Chubb kind of smiled and looked away, in silent acknowledgment.
Given all that, here’s a guess as to what Smart, Chaney and company are going to try to do with this year’s running game:
If the revamped offensive line ends up improving and they can run some traditional, downhill plays, then great. But you can’t count on that, with three new starters, one or more of whom could be true freshmen. The ability to pound other team’s up the middle must be considered a bonus.
So the main emphasis, at least as far as freshening up the offense, is to be creative in the run game. That could be as simple as calling more of the outside runs already in the playbook, and calling more runs out of pass formations, etc. But it’s also in finding creative ways to get the ball to Chubb, Michel and other playmakers.
You saw some of it last year with jet sweeps to Isaiah McKenzie. Such plays can instead go to Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin or Michel and Brian Herrien lined up at receiver. There could be the rocket sweeps that Smart mentioned, or other similar plays.
“You look at LSU, they’re one of the most physical, dominant, run-oriented teams, and even they struggle when they play the formidable defenses,” said Smart, who as Alabama’s defensive coordinator all those years knows what he’s talking about. “So you’ve got to find creative ways to run it, we’ve got to find creative ways to run it.
“Do I feel much better about that now, yes, I feel much better about that. (But) we’ve still got three guys that started on the offensive line that are gone. So are we going to be better on the offensive line, I think we’ve got good players in those positions. We’ve got really good competition. We certainly have bigger people, but those questions will be answered in fall camp and in those games.”