ATHENS – This past Saturday represented a victory for Sony Michel in more ways than Georgia’s 27-3 win over Kentucky.
For the first time in three games, he managed to get through the Bulldogs’ first offensive possession without having come off the field for treatment. Against Missouri had had to hustle to the locker room to attend to hip and groin issues. Against Florida two weeks ago, he broke his hand on the first play from scrimmage. To add insult to injury, the 20-yard gain didn’t count. It was wiped out by penalty.
The message is this: While it’s prestigious to be the premier back on an SEC team, it’s also painful.
“It just depends on the types of hits you take in the game,” said Michel, who had 165 yards on 24 carries against the Wildcats. “Some plays it might just be a little soreness. A lot of times it’s soreness from previous games that you’re dealing with. Toward the end of the season, I don’t think any back in the SEC is going to be feeling fresh.”
Certainly LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry are feeling some aches and pains. The SEC’s top two rushers have carried the ball 195 and 218 times, respectively. But they’re also much bigger men than Michel. Henry’s 6-foot-3, 242 pounds, and Fournette is 6-1, 230, or about the same size as former Bulldog Todd Gurley.
Michel, a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, is 5-11, 208 pounds. And he’s built slightly different that his fire-plug-shaped predecessor, Nick Chubb. At 5-10, 220, Chubb is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players in Georgia history. Michel is strong and stout, but much more of a slasher and cutter than a battering ram.
“The one thing I think that’s maybe a little bit different is just the physical nature of being the lead back,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “And not only being the lead back, but continuing to run what we run, you know, ‘the lead,’ which is a physical, inside run. Sometimes it bounces, cut back, whatever. The power, physical, inside run. Obviously, we’ve got our outside plays as well, and he’ll run routes and catch the ball in space and all that. So his role has changed. He’s running a lot more reps, but he’s probably hammering it inside a little bit more than he would have been if (Nick) Chubb was around. And I think he’s taken to it pretty darn good.”
Before, Michel had his niche. He was sort of an open-space specialist, getting a lot of his touches on jet sweeps, counters and quick-pass game. But then Chubb went down with a season-ending knee injury in the Tennessee game.
Since then he has been receiving the ball through more traditional tailback means. And he’s been getting it a lot.
Michel averaged 8.2 carries a game in the five games before Chubb’s injury. He has averaged 21.2 in the four games since. That number rises to 27 touches when pass receptions are included. Not surprisingly, Michel has been relieved of his kick-returning duties.
Nevertheless, Michel insists he’s holding up just fine and, like any elite skill-position player, he wants the football in his hands as much as he can get it.
“Now that I start and get so many carries during the game, I still feel the same way after the game as I did before when I was backing up Nick,” Michel said. “It’s not that bad.”