LOS ANGELES – Nick Chubb and Sony Michel can’t contain their smiles when they think back on it now. They were asked this week about the first time they met. It happened to be in San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-America game.
It was an interesting encounter. Each of them was a 5-star recruit and had been long-time commitments to Georgia. So, the two definitely knew of each other; they just didn’t know each other.
“I wasn’t sizing him up, but we didn’t talk much at the time,” Michel recalled Thursday during a Rose Bowl press junket at the L.A. Hotel Downtown. “No reason. I didn’t room with him. The only time I saw him was at practice.”
“I really can’t remember other than that was the first time we met,” Chubb said. “That was a long time ago.”
Certainly, there had to be some competitive juices flowing. We know them to be extremely competitive now, as highly productive senior tailbacks for the third-ranked Bulldogs.
But then they were still unproven college commodities. While both of them earned the highest of rankings by the recruiting services, deep inside certainly they must have been thinking that one was better than the other.
That’s not really what was foremost on their minds, however.
“Coming in as a 5-star, you think you’re going to beat anybody out anyways,” said Chubb, who hails from Cedartown. “You have to have the mentality that no matter who is there you’re going to play. Besides, we had bigger things to worry about.
“Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were still at Georgia, too. So I don’t think I was really worried much about Sony Michel.”
To say these two backs have come a long way since would be an understatement. In fact, they make up one of the most productive running back duos in the history of college football.
Entering the College Football Playoff semifinal game against No. 2 Oklahoma on Monday at the Rose Bowl, Chubb and Michel have combined for 7,958 yards rushing and 72 touchdowns in their careers. Throw in receiving and add in another 942 yards and 9 scores.
“Doing that in the SEC, I’ve got the utmost respect for what they’ve done prior to our arrival and since our arrival,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Their bodies have been put through a lot of tough, physical battles. If you go through and look at the defenses they’ve gone against over the last four years, it’s pretty incredible what numbers they’ve been able to put up sharing that time together. It’s just a credit to their character and who they are. Georgia people should appreciate them for a long time.”
While there have been many great running back duos through the years in college football — and quite a few at Georgia — most of them have been shortlived. If either back is notably talented, the NFL usually beckons fairly quickly.
That’s where Chubb and Michel have differed. Both of them were long assumed to be headed for the professional ranks as draft-eligible juniors. Instead, they chose to return to the Bulldogs for a fourth season, and they’ve hung together and shared the ball throughout.
Those two tailbacks now are a big reason Georgia (12-1) is the reigning SEC champion and favored against Oklahoma in Monday’s Rose Bowl.
“Those two set the tone every game,” Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “They’re a little different. They each have a different style, which helps. You don’t want two cookie-cutters back there. But they both have the ability to break the game open at any time, and it’s been fun to have them.”
Where Chubb and Michel might stack up as an all-time running back duo can make for a great bar-stool debate. There certainly have been some impressive ones through the years.
Of course, the game has changed a lot. At one time all college teams did was run the football. Former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer pointed out that he once had six NFL backs on one team in the mid-1970s when the Sooners were playing option football. And then there was a period of tailback exclusivity, where talents such as Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Auburn’s Bo Jackson would touch the ball 30 to 45 times per game.
Today’s game is much more pass-oriented. And while the Bulldogs run the ball more than most, their pro-style offense is based on achieving balance through play-action passing.
Generally, Southern Cal is thought to have had the best running back duo of the modern era. Reggie Bush and LenDale White combined for 3,739 yards rushing and receiving and 44 total touchdowns during the during the 2005 season.
By that mesasure, Chubb and Michel have 2,209 yards and 26 touchdowns so far this season. Michel needs 52 yards to give the Bulldogs two 1,000-yard rushers in the same year for the first time in history.
Other great single-season duos include Alabama’s Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon in 2013 and 2014 and Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in 2009-10. The SEC also produced Auburn’s Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams in 2004 and Arkansas’ Felix Jones and Darren McFadden in 2006-07.
Georgia’s opponent this week has produced its own set of great duos in recent years. Oklahoma’s Chris Brown and Demarco Murray were hard to stop from 2007-09 and Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine were extremely productive the last two seasons for the Sooners.
Even this year, with quarterback Baker Mayfield throwing the ball all over the place on the way to winning the Heisman Trophy, OU has seen sophomore Rodney Anderson (960) and freshman Trey Sermon (710) combine for 1,670 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“I’ve got a pretty good perspective on it because I know what it meant the last two years to have Perine and Mixon,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who was the team’s offensive coordinator before succeeding Bob Stoops this season. “Those guys are starting in the NFL right now. And the group we have right now has been pretty good. So, it has been a game-changer for us and I know it certainly has been for Georgia, as well.”
It certainly has. And it goes back to then-running backs coach Bryan McClendon convincing both Chubb and Michel to come to Georgia.
It was a hard sell. Not only did the Bulldogs want both of them to come, but they already had Gurley and Marshall eating up all the carries in the backfield.
But for a while now, UGA has operated under the philosophy that there are plenty of carries to go around and sharing the load is the best strategy both from the standpoint of strategy and physical health. That has extended beyond having two premium backs such as Chubb and Michel. Georgia also has D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien to turn to. And the Bulldogs have since convinced 5-star prospect Zamir “Zeus” White and 4-star James Cook to sign on in the class of 2018.
You’ll certainly hear no complaints from Chubb or Michel. They found an ideal coexistence at Georgia, and they’ve also have become the best of friends. They’ve roomed together since that somewhat stand-offish first meeting in San Antonio, and they do pretty much everything together off the field.
But to say that they’re not competitive would not be truthful. Their third roommate, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, says they’re competitive about everything, whether it be darts or who clocks the highest speed on the GPS monitors they wear during games. They also know exactly how many yards and carries each one has.
They also know their roles. Chubb is the undisputed starter and always goes in the game first. He’s considered the “downhill runner,” the back who gets the tough yards between the tackles. Michel has developed a reputation as being more shifty and versatile. He catches the ball out of the backfield more and has doubled up Chubb in career receptions 60 to 30.
Both styles work. This season, they both have 13 TDs.
And since they’ve hung around and co-existed so well, they’ve climbed career charts into some extremely lofty territory. Only Herschel Walker has rushed for more yards (5,259) in SEC history than Chubb (4,599). And right behind Chubb at third in program history is Michel (3,359). That’s above a bunch of names like Hearst and Hampton and Gurley and Moreno.
And together nobody has run for more. It’s enough to have the two backs pinching themselves sometimes.
That, of course, has led to another good debate. So, which one is the better back, Chubb or Michel?
“You could never say that,” Smart said. “I think they’re different and I think that they complement each other. They kind of complete each other, more than anything.”
Who better to ask than those backs themselves?
“I think he’s better,” Chubb said this week. “He can do pretty much anything you ask him to. He probably catches the ball better than me.”
Michel refused to believe that Chubb was being truthful in his assessment.
“He probably lied to y’all,” Michel quipped. “He just wants to put that out in the media. … As a football player he’d never think ‘that person is better than me.’ You have it in your mind that you’re a good football player to give you the confidence to go out there and play well.”
This much both the Bulldogs and their opponents have learned as both players near the end of their careers – together Chubb and Michel are tough to beat.