ATHENS — You know one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing during G-Day? The running backs. Specifically, Elijah Holyfield.
And, to be clear, I expect us all to see a lot of Holyfield a week from Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
By now, most Georgia fans know a good bit about Holyfield. At one time, though, he was sort of a myth, kind of a novelty. Everybody seemed to think that it was pretty cool that the Bulldogs signed the son of Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, world-renowned heavyweight boxing champion. If or how much Elijah might contribute at UGA’s marquee position was more of an afterthought.
I might’ve been somewhat guilty of that early on, too. Even though I had seen his high school highlights and spoke to him, his family and coaches extensively while preparing for the Next Generation piece I wrote on him before he arrived at Georgia, I kind of forgot about him while he backed up Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and entered games only in mop-up duty his first two seasons.
But then there was that kickoff return just 2 minutes, 12 seconds into the Notre Dame game. It was called back for an unnecessary holding penalty that didn’t affect the play, but Holyfield shot up the field and cut to the sideline with a 90-yard return that saw him get shoved out of bounds at the Fighting Irish 5. I remember thinking then, “Dang, Evander’s boy showed some jets right there.”
And he has several times since. Granted, his work on offense has been limited mostly to late-game, fill-in duty against tired, vanquished opponents. But it’s hard not to notice that he possesses some of the traits that the finest backs usually have, such as the quick, at-the-line hole recognition, jump cuts to avoid penetration and, of course, the speed to run away from defenders when needed.
Holyfield has exhibited all that, and he’s also “swole,” as the cool kids say. He remains the spitting image of his dad, with the “guns” (biceps) to match.
I’ve got to say, I’m very impressed. More importantly, so is Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
“He’s a workhorse,” Smart said after the Bulldogs’ 11th practice of the spring on Thursday. “He’s a tough guy. He’s physical. Extremely competitive.”
Of course, Smart says that about a lot Georgia players. But here’s the thing about Holyfield that may be more important than any other — the kid is durable.
That’s been the case again this spring. Without question, sophomore D’Andre Swift is going to be the featured back for the Bulldogs this fall. At least that’s the way it will be at the start of the season. But Swift’s work has been limited this spring — and probably will be on G-Day on April 21, with what Smart refers to as “a little groin problem.”
It’s doubtful that it’s anything serious or chronic. Proven players such as Swift almost always have some sort of “little problem” that keeps them from carrying a heavy workload during spring ball. And understandably so.
Then there’s The Zeus Factor. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to read Seth Emerson’s account of what players and coaches are saying about Zamir White, the No. 1-ranked prep running back in the country who recently signed with the Bulldogs and is already enrolled at UGA. Though he’s still recovering from an end-of-season ACL tear from last fall, White has been able to participate in drills on a very limited basis and has been impressive. The rate of his recovery has folks believing White not only will be available to play this fall, but might be ready to go at the beginning of the season.
We’ll have to wait to see on that. But it’s worth noting that one person who has seen White in action this spring and knows what’s being said and thought in the coaches’ offices at One Selig Plaza says without hesitation that White is the “best back since Herschel Walker” and predicts he ultimately will end up as Georgia’s featured running back this season.
We’ll have to wait to see on that, too. And we haven’t even mentioned till now the name James Cook, the No. 3-ranked all-purpose back in America who will enroll at UGA in June. Cook is expected to be a factor in the competition for carries as well.
But we won’t have to wait to see on Holyfield. As long as an injury doesn’t befall him in the three practices between now and G-Day, Holyfield stands to be the featured back with the No. 1 offense that day. And I’ve got to say I’m very much looking forward to seeing how he does behind the No. 1 line against Georgia’s No. 1 defense. We simply haven’t seen enough of Holyfield in “good-on-good” situations to date.
But we’ve seen enough of Holyfield to know he belongs playing at this level, and maybe the next one, too. His 39-yard touchdown run four minutes into the fourth quarter against Florida was eye popping. So was that 12-yard score against Vanderbilt. He averaged 5.9 yards on 50 carries last season, has played in 18 games in his career, including 13 last season with one start (in a special package against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game).
Holyfield has put together a body of work at Georgia, and it’s only going to get bigger this season. We’re all going to see more of him.
“I thought he grew up his second year because he contributed on special teams,” Smart said. “His first year, I don’t think he knew how to contribute on special teams. But he’s developed as a special teams player, he gained confidence on special teams and now that’s carried over on offense and carrying the ball.”
It’s important to remember that Holyfield wasn’t some kind of throw-in novelty recruit. Georgia didn’t sign him just so it could get his famous father some national television air time attending games. Coming from Atlanta’s Woodward Academy, this kid was a legitimate major college recruit. He was a consensus 4-star prospect, carrying national position rankings as high as No. 2 by Rivals and No. 6 by 247Sports.
As a high school senior, Holyfield rushed for 1,069 yards and 21 touchdowns despite playing just nine games and playing in several others with a severe ankle injury. He had 1,735 yards and 25 touchdowns in 14 games as a junior at Woodward, which was when he played himself into becoming a blue-chip football prospect. Most notably, he was never charged with a single fumble his entire high school career.
Before that, Holyfield wasn’t sure what direction to go with athletics. As one might expect, he considered following in his father’s footsteps. He boxed up to and through middle school and gave it up only because he enjoyed the team sport of football more — and he also happened to be very good at it.
Holyfield’s exceptional football potential was validated in the form of 32 scholarship offers. In the end, the Bulldogs ended up in a pretty good battle with Auburn and the rest of the SEC to sign him.
At this point, they’re certainly glad they did. Which is not to discount fellow junior Brian Herrien or any of the Bulldogs’ other backs. As always seems to be the case, Georgia has an embarrassment of riches in its backfield. Between offensive line play and the savvy direction of sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs figure to be effective running the football in 2018.
Don’t be surprised if Holyfield plays a big role in that.
“He’s a physical, tough guy, one of my favorite competitors out there,” Smart said. “He’s got to pass-protect better. He’s got to work on it and that’s been a big emphasis for him. I’m excited to see where he goes. He’s had some really good, tough runs this spring.”
I’m predicting some really good, tough runs in the G-Day game, and maybe this fall as well.