ATHENS — Elijah Holyfield keeps his approach to the game of football simple, and that extends to the interview room.
When asked this week if he thought he needed to carry the football more in Georgia’s games, the junior running back said he thinks about only one thing when it comes to that subject.
“When you get it, run hard,” he said.
Holyfield certainly does that, though “hard” might not be a strong enough word.
“Angry” is a word that’s often used to described Holyfield’s running style, as in “that dude runs angry.” And he does. Just ask LSU safety John Battle, who found himself as the target of Holyfield’s “anger” at least three times in Georgia’s last game. On all three occasions, Battle was sent backward after engaging in one-on-one contact with Georgia’s 5-foot-11, 215-pound back.
“It’s not really anger,” said Holyfield, who leads SEC regulars in yards per carry at 7.5. “It’s more of a mindset.”
Let’s just say the son of retired boxing world champion Evander Holyfield packs some punch on his runs. This phenomenon has given way to a new nickname for Elijah. If his father was the “The Real Deal,” then Elijah Holyfield is “The New Deal.”
And the new deal is that Holyfield is now the Georgia Bulldogs’ premier running back. It’s a title that was expected to be carried by sophomore D’Andre Swift, who emerged as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 back behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as a freshman last season. But Swift, who is having a respectable season of his own right, has been slowed some this season by groin and ankle injuries. He’s second on the team with 362 yards on 71 carries and has matched Holyfield’s four rushing scores.
But Holyfield now leads the Bulldogs with 488 yards in seven games and is 10th in SEC rushing at 69.7 yards per game. Meanwhile, staying healthy and on the field is another exceptional trait Holyfield possesses. He hasn’t missed a game yet due to injury, despite being a designated “inside runner” for the Bulldogs the last three seasons, and carrying a big load against the No. 1 defense in practice.
All that has made Holyfield into the back he is today. According to the Florida Gators, that’s a back who likes to “truck people.”
“Our game plan is to truck him back,” Florida linebacker Rayshad Jackson boldly predicted.
If Elijah Holyfield is coming at you, just get out of the way. pic.twitter.com/pDqfIAldCZ
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 13, 2018
The question remains, how much will Jackson and the Gators see of Holyfield on Saturday? Everyone seems to agree that LSU didn’t see enough of him in Georgia’s last game two weeks ago.
Holyfield averaged 8 yards per carry in the 36-16 upset loss to the Tigers. The problem was, he got only 7 carries in the game. Only two of those came after halftime. Notably, those went for 23 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown.
Of course, the Bulldogs found themselves two scores behind fairly early in that game. But coach Kirby Smart and Georgia’s offensive coaches were criticized for abandoning the power running game too quickly.
Still, when the Bulldogs were running the football, it was Swift who got the majority of carries with 12. And when the game was on the line in the fourth quarterback and Georgia had the ball first-and-10 at the LSU 38, it was third-string back Brian Herrien in the game and neither Holyfield nor Swift. The Bulldogs ended up punting the ball away.
Smart has been adamant that the Bulldogs see all of Georgia’s backs as equals and depend on an equitable carries distribution between them to assure a fresh runner is always in the game. But he was asked this week if going with the hot hand — particularly in critical moments — might be a better approach.
“Elijah does a great job. I think he’s one of the best running backs in this conference,” Smart said. “He runs hard, he’s tough to tackle, he’s like that every day with our guys. (But) I think wear-and-tear is important. He’s a 205-, 210-pound back, not a 220-pound back, so we’ve got to be careful about the wear-and-tear. A lot of guys 200 pounds carried it 20, 30 times a game in yesteryear. But we do everything we can to get him the ball as much as possible. He’s a guy we want to carry the ball.”
Georgia’s offensive approach against Florida will dictate how much we see of all the Bulldogs’ running backs. The Gators have one of the better overall defenses in the conference, especially when it comes to producing sacks and turnovers. But they’re not one of the SEC’s better teams against the run. They’re allowing opponents 163.1 rushing yards per game, which is 11th in the 14-team league.
As always, the Bulldogs vow to take what defenses give them. If Florida loads the box with seven and eight defenders, expect to see Georgia try to take advantage of the Gators’ young defensive backs with one-on-one matchups outside.
But if the Bulldogs are making headway on the ground, look for them to continue to pound it. Whether it’s Holyfield doing most of the pounding is the question.
“It’s really based on carries,” Smart said. “We try to get three or four carries for a guy. A lot of times they get winded. And we don’t have a lot of times they get three or four carries in one drive. … You want fresh backs in there. If you feel like those guys are equipped to run the ball, they all are going to read the same things, you want those guys in the game and you want to get those guys touches.”
Holyfield insists he isn’t worried about it. As always, he just plans to run hard whenever his number is called.
But he has certainly made a case for having it called more often. As it is, he has already taken over as Georgia’s No. 1 back, starting the last three games. There is no reason to believe Holyfield won’t get a fourth consecutive start on Saturday.
And as he demonstrated last year, he loves playing the Gators in Jacksonville. Entering late in the third quarter, Holyfield had 49 yards on four carries, including a highlight-reel 39-yard touchdown. Obviously he’d like to produce some more highlights this year.
“I’m always very excited to play. It makes it even sweeter that we’re playing in Jacksonville versus a big rival,” Holyfield said. “Jacksonville is always one of my favorite games we go to. The stadium’s real cool and just the drive over there and all that, so I’m really excited about it. And we get to play a good ball team.”
The No. 9 Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) unexpectedly are coming in as a Top 10 team in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. No. 7 Georgia comes in with an identical record but dragging considerably expectations and a modicum of doubt following the loss to LSU. The loser is likely eliminated from the Eastern Division race to Atlanta.
Holyfield says bring it on.
“We have a lot to look forward to, a lot to play for,” Holyfield said. “You know, everybody’s different in the way they want to take it on. But I kind of embrace it. I like playing in big games. I think it brings out the best in people. We all feel it, but we’ve all played in big-time games before, and we’re excited to play in another one.”