ATHENS — Nick Chubb got advice and encouragement from everywhere. It was nice. It was appreciated. But there were only a few who knew exactly what he was going through.
Keith Marshall told him: No matter how old you get, no matter where you go, people are going to ask about the knee. Todd Gurley told him: Trust the knee, trust the doctors, and trust the process. Just trust.
“If I can just follow his footsteps, do all the things that he did – because I know a lot of the things that he did – then maybe I’ll be hopefully as good as him,” Chubb said.
To watch Chubb on Georgia’s practice field is to say the qualifiers “maybe” and “hopefully” can be removed. Beating all reasonable expectations set last October, when Chubb suffered the gruesome knee injury, he’s been running, cutting and carrying the ball without limitation this week at Georgia’s practices.
The only thing he hasn’t done is absorb hits. That’s the next, and potentially final, test. But Chubb’s availability for the season opener against North Carolina – once considered a long-shot – is now approaching a certainty.
“I am who I am,” Chubb said after Wednesday’s practice. “I feel good. I have my teammates with me. So just emotionally and mentally the support is there. I feel good.”
Chubb admitted that some of the things he’s been able to do – squatting and running, for instance – have surprised him.
“But I’m doing everything I used to do,” Chubb said.
It’s still been less than a year since Chubb’s injury at Tennessee, on the first play of the game, when his knee bent the wrong way, producing the kind of replay that is prefaced with a warning for the feint of heart. UGA a day later called it a “significant” knee injury. Chubb says now it was “everything except the ACL” that was torn.
That was unlike Gurley, who suffered a “clean” ACL tear in 2014, and returned a few games into last year’s NFL season and was named the league’s offensive rookie of the year. Chubb’s injury seemed eve more serious than Marshall’s in 2013, when he never quite returned to his old self. And Chubb’s injury was worse.
“It looked pretty bad. It scared me,” Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie said. “But a kid like Chubb, he’s good at what he does. He works hard every day. So I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
The first sign Chubb was ahead of schedule was last December, during bowl practice, when he was seen walking without crutches. Then came spring practice, when he donned a uniform – to the media’s surprise – and ran in basic drills. By the end of spring practice, he was making cuts.
Behind the scenes, Chubb’s recovery was surprising teammates, like in the weight room, where McKenzie said Chubb has been squatting over 500 pounds.
“He looked like he never got hurt,” McKenzie said. “He looks stronger.”
Senior tackle Greg Pyke said Chubb “doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.” That doesn’t mean, Pyke hastened to add, that he knew when Chubb would return to playing. That’s up to head coach Kirby Smart and head athletic trainer Ron Courson.
UGA tailback Nick Chubb (27) specks with the media after Wednesday’s practice. (Joshua L. Jones/Special)
“But I know he’s been out there on the field with us, and he looks amazing,” Pyke said. “It’s great to have him out there.”
Chubb was also careful not to make any proclamations about the season. He’s been publicly guarded, and didn’t like it when someone leaked a video of him running hard on a treadmill.
“I sent it to a few people,” Chubb said. “It disappointed me.”
If Chubb does play in the opener – even start, an increasingly likely scenario – it’s important to put into context just how far he’s come. The term career-ending was thrown around by some fans and media – though not anyone at UGA.
Chubb himself was in a fog.
“When I got hurt my mind was somewhere else,” he said. “I was just trying to see what the next step for me was. At that moment I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I didn’t put myself in any kind of predicament to predict anything coming.”
The toughest part? It was being away from his team, according to Chubb, even though he only wasn’t around them for one game the rest of last year.
“That was the Florida game, and we all know how that went,” Chubb said. “So just being at home, watching that, around some friends I shouldn’t have been around, it just kinda hurt.”
That’s not a problem now. As Georgia has practiced this week, Chubb has not only been out there on the field, he’s been with the tailbacks. He’s been running first team. He’s been without limitations, handled just like any other tailback.
It doesn’t mean the story is over. It doesn’t mean he has officially shocked everyone who watched his knee buckle 10 months ago..
But it’s pretty close.
“I know I worked hard,” Chubb said. “I had people behind me, pushing me, Ron Courson, the whole strength staff, my teammates pushing me. The fans, my family, all pushing me. So it’s no surprise, because we have a great staff, and incredible people behind me, pushing me.”