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(Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Sophomore D'Andre Swift is eager to prove that he can flourish between the tackles as a primary ball-carrier as well as a specially-deployed weapon as he often was last season.

Own the East: The presumption is that Georgia RB D’Andre Swift can live up to hype

Chip Towers

GEORGIA’S OWN #5: RB D’ANDRE SWIFT

ATHENS — Expectations for Georgia running back D’Andre Swift this season — and they are great — come down to the difference in the words presume and assume.

To presume something is to suppose it based on probability and evidence. To assume something is to suppose it without any evidence.

So based on what we saw last season from the sophomore from Philadelphia, we presume Swift will pick up where his predecessors left off in terms of production out of the backfield for the Bulldogs. But just how confident can we be that we’re not assuming some of that?

Swift will forever be known in UGA annals for his 64-yard TD run that broke Auburn’s spirit in the 2017 SEC Championship Game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

After all, there is not an apples-to-apples comparison to be had. While it’s a fact that Swift as a freshman last season averaged 7.6 yards per carry for the Bulldogs, it’s also a fact that his production didn’t come in a primary ball-carrier role such as the one Nick Chubb and Sony Michel shared for the last three seasons. So could it be that we are assuming too much?

We’ll soon find out. Georgia’s season opener against Austin Peay is just days away. And no matter how one slices up the running back position for the Bulldogs, it’s clear that Swift is a big part of their plans.

As the leading returning rusher on the roster, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder is the heir apparent to Chubb and Michel at the tailback position (such as it is nowadays). Swift piled up 618 yards rushing, averaged 7.6 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns as an understudy last year.

But that’s not the same as lining up as the lone back behind quarterback Jake Fromm on the first play of every game with everybody in the stadium expecting the ball to be handed to you. That was the case for Chubb as the starter last two years. Michel used to joke he was glad that role went to his roommate because those first few carries of a game usually are the toughest of all.

Physically, Swift is built remarkably similar to both Chubb and Michel. But he hasn’t been asked to carry the football into the A or B gap on a straight-dive handoffs very often. His effectiveness to that end is yet to be determined.

Swift knows this better than anybody. But he’s not shying away in the least from the challenge.

“I’ve got to show people what I can do,” Swift said this past week. “I think I’m about to do that. I’m comfortable between the tackles. I feel like when I get into space, the highlights will come.”

Swift produced no shortage of highlights during the incredible season that was 2017. There is probably not a Bulldog fan around that can’t recount exactly what Swift did on that 64-yard touchdown run against Auburn in the SEC Championship. On that play, he lined up as the Bulldogs’ lone back with Fromm in a shotgun formation, took a belly handoff from the quarterback, shot through a huge hole provided by the left side of the line, made one cut toward the Georgia sideline, then outran the Tigers’ secondary all the way to the end zone.

Play-by-play announcer Scott Howard nearly blew a vocal cord as he screamed “they won’t catch him. … The freshman just ran it back to Philadelphia.”

Indeed, the play highlighted Swift’s tremendous burst and speed. But it also came against a tired defense with 10:21 remaining in the fourth quarter and gave the Bulldogs a 28-7 lead.

That wasn’t always the scenario for Swift, but it often was. He also produced a lot of his highlights when he was on the field at the same time as Georgia’s primary backs. Some of his best runs came on counters out of the slot position with Chubb or Michel in the traditional tailback role.

Not coincidentally, Swift also led all Georgia backs with 17 catches for 153 yards. So nobody was better as a complementary back.

That certainly contributed some to Swift making big plays. His 71-yard run against Missouri was Georgia’s longest of the regular season, and he had a 39-yard, catch-and-run to set up a score against Florida. But he also went quiet in some of the Bulldogs’ biggest games. He didn’t get a carry against either Oklahoma or Alabama in the College Football Playoffs and had only two catches for 7 yards combined in those contests.

That said, there’s not a person in Georgia’s camp who doubts that Swift can carry on the Bulldogs’ proud tradition at “Running Back U.” Everybody has seen what he can do in spot duty. It follows, then, that more of Swift will only result in more big plays.

And, of course, Swift won’t be going it alone. Based on consistency and a constant presence in practice (Swift missed the spring with a groin injury), junior Elijah Holyfield could end up as the starter for the opener and maybe even after that, a la Chubb. The son of former world boxing champion Evander Holyfield, Elijah makes his living between the tackles.

But both of them hate that “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside” narrative. They both see themselves as complete backs in the mold of all those Bulldogs who have come before them. Starting versus not starting isn’t really the issue.

“Georgia is known as ‘RBU,’ so our coaches will figure it out,” Holyfield said after a practice last week. “They will find a way to make it work.”

No, along with Brian Herrien and freshman James Cook, everybody’s going to get their chance to show what they have as a running back this season. That was further solidified when heralded freshman Zamir White went down with an ACL injury in the last scrimmage.

So it’s Swift and Holyfield, primarily, who will head into September with the spotlight on them. And it’s on Swift, only, that Las Vegas is offering pretty decent odds of being in the running for the Heisman Trophy.

Swift know this and is not — ahem — running from it.

“I have a little bit of hype behind me, so I have to show what I can do,” he said.

It’ll be a long time before we know if national awards are a possibility in Year 2 for Swift. In the meantime, he enters the season wanting only to make a name for himself and not necessarily as the back that succeeded Chubb and Michel.

“We kind of want to be our own people,” Swift said of all of Georgia’s running backs. “Nick and Sony left a great legacy here, but I think we’re going to do something really special, too. With the O-line we have and the whole team, I think we’re going to do something really special.”

To that, Smart says, “hear, hear!”

“I’m excited to see them embrace this opportunity,” the Georgia coach said. “I think the more (people) talk about what we lost, the more those guys say, ‘let me show you what I can do.'”

If our presumption about Swift is correct, he will be another reason the Bulldogs can “Own the East.”