ATHENS – There wasn’t a sense when Nick Chubb and Sony Michel arrived at Georgia in the summer of 2014 that they needed to save the program. There was a certain other tailback on the roster, named Todd Gurley. When Chubb and Michel, as precocious freshmen, shared a room, their main worry was getting used to college … and each other.
“I’m the snorer,” Chubb said with a smile that summer.
They were part of a signing class that was considered modest, at least by SEC standards. It had been cobbled together by a staff in flux: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had left a month before signing day, replaced by Jeremy Pruitt, who was joined by three new assistants.
“We’re all working toward one common goal,” then-offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said on signing day, 2014. “And that’s to get back to Atlanta.”
Bobo, Pruitt and almost every staff member are long gone. But in the class’ fourth year, that modest signing group is the backbone of the team that got Georgia back to the SEC Championship Game.
Eight out of Georgia’s starters are members of the 2014 class. That includes the star tailbacks (Chubb and Michel, who ended up being two of the three most prolific rushers in program history), the best offensive lineman (Isaiah Wynn), the center (Lamont Gaillard), a 50-game starter who could still tie or break the program record for interceptions (Dominick Sanders) and Lorenzo Carter, one of the emotional leaders on the defense.
“This senior class is very hungry,” Carter said. “A lot of us came back to be able to have a chance to play for a championship. Even just being able to say that we have a chance to leave Georgia better than when we came in, bring a championship.”
The on-field accomplishments are strong But those around the program point just as much to the leadership of the senior class – not just the 2014 members, but fifth-year seniors and transfers. Coach Kirby Smart, who took over halfway through the careers of the members of the Class of 2014, said he sees a combination of good character and experience through fire.
“Each one of them has experienced things throughout their time here that’s made a better leader,” Smart said. “I’m a firm believer that Sony and Nick are the leaders they are because of the hard times they’ve been through. I mean, each one of them has been out with significant injuries during their career. That’s helped them be a stronger leader.”
Carter and fellow outside linebacker Davin Bellamy (a member of the 2013 class) are good leaders because they learned how from Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, added Smart.
It has been a long career for these players: They went through a coaching change, not only their head coach but almost every assistant coach. Players have gone through brutal injuries. They endured difficult losses, an 8-5 season and their own various up-and-down playing experiences.
“It was really no tipping point; it was just something over time that was built,” Michel said. “With all those obstacles you mentioned it helped build this foundation.”
The class came in with decent credentials: It ranked eighth nationally, per the 247Sports Composite, but only sixth in the SEC. But unlike its predecessor – the infamous 2013 class that was filled with players who departed and/or didn’t live up to their billing – most of those who enrolled in 2014 stayed with the program.
Eleven of the top 12 rated players in that class remain with the program. The exception is quarterback Jacob Park, who transferred for playing time and ended up at Iowa State.
Another member of the Class of 2014, Isaiah McKenzie, left for the NFL after last year, when he led the team in receiving and set the program record for punt return touchdowns.
The Class of 2013 may have ultimately gotten Mark Richt fired, riddled with missed evaluations, transfers and discipline problems. One member of that class, safety Tray Matthews, was dismissed by UGA and will start at safety for Auburn on Saturday.
But the next class ultimately may have saved the program. If Georgia can pull off the SEC championship and make it the College Football Playoff, that class arguably should go down as one of the most important in program history.
“We’ve already got our plaque on the wall for the SEC East,” Carter said. “And we’re just trying to keep doing, keep building off of this great season.”