112021 Athens: Georgia running back James Cook breaks off a 40-yard run against Charleston Southern during the first quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Kirby Smart: The rise of James ‘Mongoose’ Cook to complete player

ATHENS — Kirby Smart looked to find ways to get James Cook on the field since the gifted tailback arrived on campus some 3 1/2 years ago.

Now, it seems, the No. 1 Georgia football program would be wise not to take him off the field, even if that means a two-back set with fellow senior tailback Zamir White.

Cook is neck-and-neck with White in yards from scrimmage this season with 673 on 99 touches (82 rushes, 17 catches) to White’s 690 yards on 126 touches (122 rushes, 4 catches).

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“I think back to his freshman year and we tried to use him in different ways, and he was learning the offense, understanding the motions, having to be a part of a functioning offense that was using him in different ways,” Smart said. “Now, he’s become a more complete player.”

Cook’s versatility was on display at Tennessee two games ago, when he delivered an MVP performance with 104 yards rushing, 43 receiving and 3 touchdowns out of the Bulldogs’ ground and pound attack.

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Georgia’s elite defense has led to a shift on offense that relies on a strong run game setting up the play-action game, and Cook’s versatility has been a cornerstone to success.

Cook followed up in the Bulldogs’ 56-7 Senior Day win over Charleston Southern by breaking off a 40-yard run and hauling in an 18-yard pass, the starters seeing abbreviated action against the FCS team.

“He runs with toughness, he doesn’t have huge weight, but he runs behind his pads,” Smart said. “Coaches called him ‘The Mongoose” when he first got here. He’s hard to tackle, he’s always slithering and sliding through there, and he’s hard to get a direct hit on.”

Cook, who has most notably improved his running between the tackles this season, indicated a blue-collar work ethic has been key.

“It’s just working hard and practicing hard and believing in everything my coaches do,” Cook said. “and following the game plan.”

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Smart likes the different dimensions the Georgia backs bring.

“You don’t want all of them to be the same, you want guys to take on different roles,” Smart said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of great teams, and the running backs have always complement each other on great teams.

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