(11) Kentucky
(1) Georgia
Georgia running back James Cook (4) during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)
Anthony Walsh

Georgia tailback derby heating up, James Cook on front burner as fall camp opens

ATHENS — It’s hard to know which Georgia running back will take the field first, but tailback James Cook was the first behind the microphone in fall drills.

Georgia football opens the season at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 4 against Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., with one of the deepest backfields in the nation.

UGA running backs coach Dell McGee said last spring, “it’s a constant battle with our guys at the running back position,” adding that seniority would not decide the position.

Indeed, matchups will likely play a role in which of the five Bulldogs’ running backs is on the field at any given time.

Cook would seem to be in a position to get a lot of reps in the opener.

Clemson has a ferocious defensive front that will make quarterback JT Daniels get rid of the ball early and often, and Cook has proven a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Cook, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior from Miami, made it clear he’s not keyed up about playing the Tigers.

“It’s just another game, we’ve all played in big games, that’s how I feel,” Cook said of the opening game against the six-time defending ACC champions.

As for how the game reps are distributed, Cook also shrugged that off.

It’s worth noting Kendall Milton was slowed by injuries last season, dealing with a hamstring in fall camp and sprained knee late in the season, and McIntosh missed spring drills with an elbow injury.

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Both Milton and McIntosh are 100 percent cleared and ready to go for the season.

McGee made it clear Georgia hits the reset button at the start of each camp.

“They have to treat this offseason and spring practice like it’s a brand new season,” McGee said last spring.

“They have to be eager to learn, eager to get better, eager to improve their skills because all of our players have weaknesses that they need to work on and that needs to be a point of emphasis and that starts with me making sure they’re detailed in what they need to improve on.”

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Cook’s open-field running and receiving ability has been discussed since he arrived at Georgia as a 5-star prospect.

But Cook, the younger brother of NFL superstar tailback Dalvin Cook, has yet to have 50 carries or 350 yards rushing in any of the three previous seasons, and he has had only 16 catches in each of the past two campaigns.

Cook’s career-highs for carries (11) came his freshman season against South Carolina, and his career-high for rushing yards (104) and longest rush (44) came against the Gamecocks last season.

As a receiver, Cook shined against Alabama last season with 4 catches for 101 yards including an 82-yard touchdown.

A bigger, stronger version of Cook emerged this spring, as he tied Milton for team honors with 13 touches in the G-Day Game and led all the backs with 87 total yards.

Cook also took time this spring to go to California along with several of the Georgia receivers for extra workout time with quarterback JT Daniels.

“Just getting that connection together and having all of the guys there in the month of May,” Cook said, asked about the spring break trip. “We were separated for a long time, so just being together for a few days and getting more connected.”

Cook said he thinks fans might see him split out more often, but, he said, ‘that’s Coach (Todd) Monken’s decision.”

Time will tell, but seeing Cook selected to talk to the media on Friday could indicate the Georgia staff believes the South Florida talent is ready to come to fruition.