Georgia football fans crave a national championship, and this season might be the year their wait comes to an end. However, the first step toward making that happen is for UGA coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs to a third-straight SEC East title. With that in mind, DawgNation is proud to present — in partnership with Georgia’s Own Credit Union — the “Own the East” series. A season preview content series focused on what it will take for UGA to dominate the division once again, and possibly return to the College Football Playoff.
Running backs Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield entered Georgia as members of the Bulldogs’ 2016 class, and both competed for playing time on Kirby Smart’s first team.
Herrien got the initial nod – supporting Nick Chubb, and playing in place of the injured Sony Michel in UGA’s 2016 season opener vs. North Carolina, earning seven carries for 59 yards and a touchdown.
In their second seasons in 2017, with Chubb and Michel leading UGA to the College Football Playoff, Herrien and Holyfield were lightly used – at least in games. Yet Smart said it was during practices – working against the first-team defense while on scout team – that the pair got some valuable experience.
“Elijah and Brian, they go down and take reps against the defense each day,” Smart said then. “They work as scout team backs because I think they need the development, so they get touches during the week. They’re developing; they’re getting better. They take the wear and tear off each other, and there’s not really an ego in that group, so I think it’s a good thing to have.”
In 2018, after Chubb and Michel departed for the NFL, it was Holyfield, possibly using the experience gained in the previous year’s practices, who stepped into a larger role – forming an impressive duo with D’Andre Swift that maintained the legacy Chubb and Michel had established for the Bulldogs.
Along the way, Holyfield rushed for 1,018 yards in 2018 – performing well enough in his mind to leave school after his junior season and attempt to find a home in the NFL.
Now UGA fans are left to wonder: who’ll fill the void left by Holyfield’s absence and possibly become the Bulldogs’ next 1,000-yard back?
Don’t count out Herrien as an answer.
As Smart explained, even though Holyfield was the back that emerged in the larger role last season, Herrien was still doing plenty behind the scenes – just as he had the two previous seasons.
“Brian’s been really consistent since being here in my opinion,” Smart said last year. “You guys only get to see the finished product on the field and you go off results, and you go off stats… I’m going off the body of work for two springs where I’ve seen this guy… he makes guys miss in the hole. He’s quick. Brian’s a good runner. I don’t think it’s been a progression, I think since he’s gotten here he’s been a good football player.”
Of course, it should be pointed out that replacing Holyfield – even by a an experienced player such as Herrien — isn’t necessarily as easy as it looks.
While it’s true that Holyfield and Swift’s combined stats last season nearly matched Chubb and Michel’s from the magical 2017 season, the larger historical context explains how rare Swift and Holyfield’s success together actually was.
The Bulldogs pride themselves on being “Running Back University,” and the credentials for that claim are well-established by now. However, last season was just the second time in program history UGA produced two 1,000-yard running backs in the same season – 2017 being the first.
In fact, even producing one 1,000-yard back is a rarer feat than some might imagine.
Holyfield and Swift became the 12th and 13th members of the so-called 1,000-yard club at UGA last season, and 2018 was the fifth-consecutive season the Bulldogs produced at least one 1,000 back.
However, UGA only produced seven 1,000-yard backs in the 31 years in between the most-recent streak and Herschel Walker’s three-straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1980-82.
Yet while 1,000-yard seasons might’ve been less common in the past at UGA than some might’ve realized, the overall caliber of running back on the current roster coupled with the perceived quality of the offensive line should provide an easier path to success this year than some previous editions of the Bulldogs might’ve been able to enjoy.
Of course, fans have their assumptions about which running backs are most likely to travel that path, and Herrien isn’t always the first name mentioned – due at least in part to Herrien’s recruiting profile, which was far smaller than other backs on the Bulldogs’ roster.
For instance, Zamir White – who has emerged as a fan favorite in his attempt to return after ACL tears on both knees over the last two seasons – was the nation’s No. 1 running back for the class of 2018.
Another UGA running back, James Cook, seemingly also gets more attention than Herrien – possibly due to Cook’s status as the former No. 3 all-purpose back in the 2018 class, and the fact that Cook’s brother, Dalvin, was a star running back at Florida State before becoming a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
The lack of attention for Herrien in comparison to his more-famous teammates might actually be a motivating force for him. He tweeted over the offseason about being overlooked coming out of high school.
“I didn’t have [three], [four] or [five] stars nor did I care to get them,” Herrien said. “I played on my football team and made it to Georgia with [zero] stars.”
That reference to “stars” – the common measurement used for recruits by national scouting services – is similar to a message Herrien delivered after signing with the Bulldogs.
“Now the people that slept on me get to see what they really missed out on,” Herrien told DawgNation at the time.
This season might be the moment Herrien gets to show the world what he meant with those words.
Smart seems to think that’s a possibility. He offered some praise for Herrien after the G-Day scrimmage in April.
“Brian’s a good back,” Smart said. “Brian’s gotten better. I’ve seen Brian… you’ve got to remember he’s been here several springs… so I’ve seen a lot of body of work from Brian. He’s got a really good skillset of catching the ball and he’s got a good understanding of the offense.”
Of course, Smart has also acknowledged the depth at Herrien’s position. And while it’s true Herrien’s experience could help him this season the way it seemingly helped Holyfield last year, the talent of the less-experienced backs like White and Cook will probably make it difficult to keep them off the field too.
“I want success and I want success for each one of those players. If each one of those backs has success, could you end up where nobody gets 1,000 and three or four guys get close to 1,000,” Smart said. “A defense dictates sometimes what we do offensively because we check to certain things so you can’t control it. It helps [when] you have guys who are kind of the bell cows, but I’m not past playing four backs.”
The ability to possibly play four running backs is quite the luxury for UGA. Yet when the true hierarchy within the group gets established over the course of the season, don’t be surprised if it’s Herrien with his “zero stars” recruiting backstory that steps up into a major role this season.