ATHENS – Knowshon Moreno stood on Georgia’s sideline at EverBank Field last Saturday in Jacksonville and marveled at what he saw. It wasn’t just that his alma mater was putting a thumping on the team Moreno had learned to hate when he was playing for the Bulldogs. It was the way they were doing it and, in particular, with whom.
Moreno had heard “a little bit” about the new kid in the backfield, D’Andre Swift, but this was his first time getting to really observe him. And, with the added context of all the other backs Georgia was utilizing that day against Florida, Moreno was mesmerized.
“It was my first time really watching him,” Moreno said of Swift, a freshman from Philadelphia. “But you can see it all. He has power; he had a little bit of speed as well. I am going to keep on watching that boy and all those boys to see what they can do.”
“All those boys” is right. Five in fact. That is how many tailbacks Georgia is playing with regularity this season. And if things continue to trend as they have been all season against South Carolina on Saturday, you will see all five of the tailbacks.
Georgia (No. 1, College Football Playoff rankings) can put up a good argument for having the best backfield in all of football this season. It’s a debate that No. 2-ranked Alabama will gladly take up.
Like the Bulldogs, the Crimson Tide also are utilizing five different backs to great effect this season. Bama is leading the SEC in rushing this season at 298.8 yards per game, 14.8 more than Georgia.
Head coach Kirby Smart was the running backs coach at Georgia in 2005, when the Bulldogs had Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware in the backfield. Brown, Lumpkin and Browning played in the NFL.
Smart was also at Alabama for nine years before becoming the Bulldogs’ head coach. He indicated Georgia’s 2017 backfield might be the best he has been associated with.
“It’s probably deeper,” Smart said. “I mean, when you start talking about five deep, I’ve been around a lot of good four-man rotations, but five is pretty special.”
Even before Smart came to UGA from Bama, the two institutions shared an offensive philosophy. Both programs believe not only in a run-first mentality, they also believe in their backs sharing the load.
The idea is not only to keep their backs fresh during the course of a game but also allow them to hold up better physically throughout the year.
Georgia, which happens to feature two of the best backs in SEC history, is employing that strategy to near perfection this season. Senior Nick Chubb has the most carries with 120, or an average of 15 per game. He is the team’s leading rusher with 765 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Sony Michel is next with 74 carries for 629 yards and 8 TDs, followed by Swift (46-366-1), Elijah Holyfield (32-227-2) and Brian Herrien (51-166-1).
It can seem almost cruel to Georgia’s opponents. The Bulldogs are winning their games this season by an average of 26.25 points and their SEC games by 32. So they’re generally decided by the end of the third quarter. After featuring Chubb and Michel primarily in the first three quarters, Georgia unleashes Holyfield and Herrien in the fourth. Those backs, who would be starters at other programs, run hard and want to prove that they’re worthy of carrying a heavier load.
And they’re getting their point across. Holyfield had 49 yards on 4 carries against Florida last Saturday, including an impressive 39-yard TD run. He is averaging 7.1 yards a carry.
“I think the biggest thing it helps is our defense because Elijah and Brian go down and take reps against the defense each day,” Smart said. “They work as scout team backs because I think they need the development and they get touches during the week. So, they’re developing, they’re getting better and they take the wear-and-tear off each other. There’s not really an ego in that group, so I think it’s a good thing to have.”
It’s why Georgia is able to call itself Running Back U without getting much of an argument from anybody. Southern Cal always has been known as Tailback U, and it earned that reputation with Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson and others who have come through there.
But there’s not many who can lay claim to the level of sustained success that Georgia has had at that position for decades. Herschel Walker is the greatest back in college football history, but there were many other greats before and after him. Walker, Terrell Davis, Todd Gurley, Rodney Hampton and Garrison Hearst enjoyed enormous success not only in college but also in the pros.
Oh, and that guy Moreno. He infamously was redshirted his first season at UGA while watching Brown, Lumpkin and Ware get all the carries in 2006.
Under the current format, Moreno probably would’ve also been in the rotation. He likes the look of it.
“I just see that they are all just out there competing,” Moreno said. “They do good things, and they like to see the other backs do successful things, too. They get excited when they see the other guys make big plays and vice versa. That’s how it was when we were there.
“I used to get excited when Thomas and Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware would make big plays. That would just fuel me, fuel the whole offense and the whole team. I feel like that’s what the guys are doing now.”
Look for another show from Running Back U on Saturday against South Carolina.
DawgNation’s Jeff Sentell contributed to this report.