ATHENS – As the Georgia football team practiced Wednesday, an observer could watch from an overhang in the indoor facility, gaze at the team and see a most unusual sight for this late point in the season: a healthy team.
Every tailback, including Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, fully practicing. Trent Thompson, the star defensive lineman, is healthy after missing a couple of games earlier in the season. No missing starters. No missing second-teamers.
As Georgia (9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings) enters the final stretch, chasing an SEC and national championship, it is blessed with basically a full deck.
“I wouldn’t call it luck,” said senior linebacker Reggie Carter, who returned two weeks ago after missing two games with a concussion. “I don’t know what to call it.”
Compare this to the team Georgia will face Saturday or the one it may face in the SEC championship next month.
- Auburn is missing tailback Kamryn Pettway, who if healthy would help create a great two-headed tailback attack with Kerryon Johnson. Instead Pettway is out with a shoulder injury. He also missed the game last year at Georgia with a hamstring. Auburn’s offensive line has also been hit with injuries, and two starters last week against Texas A&M are uncertain for this week.
- Alabama lost two linebackers, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson, for at least the rest of the regular season because of injuries in the LSU game. Two Crimson Tide outside linebackers, Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis, were injured in the season opener and haven’t returned.
Or just compare this Bulldogs team to past seasons at Georgia:
- 2015: Chubb suffered his season-ending knee injury the sixth game of the season. Outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins, now with the New York Jets, missed a few games with a hip flexor. Receiver and punt returner Isaiah McKenzie missed five games with hamstring problems.
- 2014: Todd Gurley returned from an autograph suspension only to tear his ACL in his first game back. Keith Marshall and Michel also missed time. Star outside linebacker Leonard Floyd missed a couple games with a shoulder problem.
- 2013: Otherwise known as the year of the injury. Star receiver Malcolm Mitchell tore his ACL in the season opener. Eventually, so did receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, Marshall and quarterback Aaron Murray. Gurley badly sprained his ankle and missed multiple games. Receiver Chris Conley and Michael Bennett each missed a couple of games with leg injuries.
Georgia was relatively injury-free last year, too, the first season under coach Kirby Smart. There was only one starter lost for the year because of injury (punter Marshall Long). This year a number of players have had short-term injuries, but all have returned after missing one or two games. The most long-term and noteworthy injury has been to Jacob Eason, who sprained his knee in the opener, but Jake Fromm performed so well in Eason’s three-game absence that Fromm is now the starter.
So who deserves credit? Most point to Ron Courson, the team’s longtime head athletic trainer, and the strength and conditioning staff led by Scott Sinclair, who Smart brought in with him last year.
Roquan Smith, the team’s star linebacker, missed most of spring practice with a pectoral injury but has been a full-go since preseason.
“We take care of our bodies, and the coaches take care of our body throughout the week in practice when we go hard,” Smith said. “It’s just something, I guess you could say it’s a bit of luck, too. But it’s something in the preparation, as well.”
Senior cornerback Aaron Davis, who missed his final year of high school because of an ACL injury, hasn’t missed a game the past two years.
“The strength staff does a great job of training our bodies of being able to take contact and take hits every day in practice and then in games,” Davis said. “Then it’s just up to the guys to put ourselves in the best position for our sleep, eating right and getting great recovery.”
But what makes Georgia’s situation so surprising is how physical the coaches have made practice. It’s the staple of the team: make practices harder than games. So how has Georgia managed that without wearing players out and causing injury?
“You follow science,” Smart said, whose staff closely monitors players during practice on the GPS devices they wear. “We’re comparing the numbers this year to last year. We’re seeing how many guys are hitting top speeds in the games. If they continue to hit their top speeds, then we continue to do what we do. But if they slow down, then we have to slow down.”
It also helps, Smart added, that the Bulldogs have been able to pull starters in the fourth quarter of so many games. The team’s depth this year also allows more subbing and resting.
“You’ve got to practice smart, but you’ve got to practice physical,” Smart said. “And some of it has been luck. You’ve got to have some luck on your side in preventing injuries, and we have been very fortunate.”