ATHENS – One of the many nicknames for Georgia running back legend Herschel Walker was “Goal-line Stalker.” Not that Elijah Holyfield or anybody else can be compared to the man whose No. 34 jersey has long been retired by the Bulldogs, but he deserves a similar nickname at this point, too.
Here’s one that might work: “Pylon Destroyer.”
If you’ve watched Holyfield play these last two seasons, you know immediately why this fits him. When it comes to seeking out and destroying goal-line pylons, there are few around who do it with the effectiveness and efficiency of Georgia’s junior running back.
Take this past Saturday. Holyfield’s passage to the east end zone at Sanford Stadium seemed to be closing down fast due to Georgia Tech’s angling defensive pursuit. But somewhere along about the 5-yard line, Holyfield left his feet, and at that point, he became an styrofoam-seeking missile. With the outstretched football acting as his nose cone and the rest of his body following torpedo-like perfectly parallel to the football field below him, Holyfield found his mark. The bright-orange target was obliterated and Holyfield and the Bulldogs were rewarded with another 6 points.
We’ve seen this action repeated several times this season. Of his seven touchdowns, at least three have ended in significant pylon-destroying leaps. Keen observers will recall Holyfield’s first career pylon kill at the end of a 39-yard run against Florida last year in Jacksonville. But Holyfield’s most impressive dive was probably the one that came at the end of a 24-yard run against Vanderbilt earlier this year. That one included a half-twist to South boundary, allowing him to break the plane of the end zone sideways. All have been captured by the talented photographers who crowd the sidelines at Georgia’s games.
Pylon targeting is an ability for which Holyfield is quite proud.
“It’s always like that,” Holyfield said. “I just see the pylon and try to get to it anyway I can. I just try to reach it, and I usually can get to it. If I can see it, I know I can get the ball to it.”
Destroying pylons came naturally to Holyfield. There were a lot of other aspects of the college game that did not.
The Woodward Academy graduate had to work hard on his pass-protection skills early in his Georgia career. Likewise, it took Holyfield a while to become an adept receiver out of the backfield. On that front, he’s still a work in progress, with just four catches on the season and six in his career.
But it’s not from a lack of trying. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Holyfield stays after practice every day to catch as many as 100 extra balls to entrust his coaches that he’ll be able to do that whenever needed.
“I’ve been very pleased with Elijah,” Smart said Monday as he discussed Saturday’s SEC Championship matchup with No. 1 Alabama. “His leadership more so than his ability to get to the pylons has been tremendous. His work ethic day in and day out, his toughness and his attitude, is tremendous.”
Holyfield and his backfield mate D’Andre Swift are a couple of big reasons the Bulldogs are back in the conference title game. A year ago, they were understudies to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both of those guys are now starting running backs in the NFL, which only underscores the level of weaponry Georgia was losing off that team.
The Bulldogs felt good about Swift being able to match the production of those predecessors, even though his durability and stamina were in question. But when Zamir White – America’s No. 1-rated recruit better known as “Zeus” – went down in preseason camp with a second knee injury, there were concerns about whether the Bulldogs could replicate the level of run game that helped propel them to the College Football Playoff finals last year.
A year later, Holyfield and the Bulldogs have answered that challenge with a resounding clang. With the regular season now completed, Swift (962 yards, 6.9 ypc average, 9 TDs) and Holyfield (896-6.7-7) have produced almost identical rushing numbers on the field.
More importantly, Georgia is almost identical as a run-oriented football team. In 2017, the Bulldogs logged 550 rushing attempts for 3,188 yards (5.8 ypc) and 35 TDs. So far in 2018, they’ve had 498 carries for 3,118 yards, (6.3 ypc) and 29 TDs. Accordingly, Georgia leads the SEC in rushing at 259.8 yards per game.
“I think both those backs would tell you they benefit from a physical offensive line and a group of receivers that are a threat to catch the ball,” said Smart, done with heaping praise on Georgia’s backs. “So those things help open boxes. When people don’t want to play you one-on-one, which Alabama will, they open up things for the other guys. And that’s important.
“But Elijah has been tremendous, and he has a good knack for getting the ball in the end zone. He’s a slasher. He’s not afraid of contact.”
Their predecessors like what they’re seeing, Holyfield said.
“We talk every once in a while,” Holyfield said of both Chubb and Michel. “We’ll hit each other up on Instagram or they’ll shoot me a text every once in a while. They’ve been real, real supportive and they approve of what we’ve done so far. They just want us to get this next game.”
Beating Alabama is all that’s on Holyfield’s mind and the minds of all the Bulldogs at this point. If they’re to do that, their ability to run the football and take out the occasional pylon will certainly be a contributing factor.
“I feel like all of us have done a really good job this year, and I feel like we’ve gotten better throughout the year,” Holyfield said. “This is the time to really make yourself a name.”
Holyfield already has. Pylon Destroyer.