ATHENS — Here’s something you don’t hear Georgia coach Kirby Smart say very much — if ever.
Asked after the Florida game what he thought about what he’d just seen from D’Andre Swift and the Bulldogs’ offense in the fourth quarter, Smart grinned and replied, “It was such a pleasure.”
Yes, “playing with physicality” and delivering a knockout blow via a long Swift run are among the things that bring Georgia’s football coach pleasure. And, in fact, there were a lot of Bulldogs everywhere who enjoyed seeing Swift burst through a skinny hole at left guard, shake an arm tackle and then fly down the hash marks to the end zone as if he’d been shot out of a cannon.
Frankly, it’s something nobody who roots for the Red and Black has seen enough of this season. Count Swift among them.
“I’m getting back healthy and think people are going to see more of me exploding and stuff like that,” Swift said after the Bulldogs’ third practice in preparation for Kentucky on Wednesday.
The sophomore from Philadelphia has been anything but healthy all season. He has been on one level or another of injured-but-playing all season, and that continues to be the case. But it was evident in the 36-17 win over the No. 9 Gators this past Saturday that Swift was feeling much more like his old self. That’s good news for the Bulldogs as they head into another Top 10 showdown Saturday at Kentucky (CBS-TV, WSB Radio 750-AM, 95.5 FM).
“I’m definitely feeling better than earlier in the season, but I’m still a little banged up,” Swift said. “… I think when I’m healthy the sky’s the limit for me.”
Going back to last spring, and in preseason camp, Swift was dealing with a groin injury. He continued to play with that, then suffered a mild ankle sprain. He felt he was almost through that when he incurred a foot injury against LSU.
“I didn’t even know until we got back to Athens,” Swift said. “It was a foot contusion. I don’t even remember what happened; I just know when I got off the plane it was hurting.”
Remarkably, Swift still hasn’t missed a game all season. What’s been missing, though, is him as the Bulldogs’ premier back. That role has moved to junior Elijah Holyfield, who has handled it well.
In the meantime, Swift continues to focus on getting well. He’s been doing that with a routine that takes him to the training room at the Butts-Mehre football complex three times a day.
“I get up at 6 in the morning, get treatment, go to class, come back right after class, come back again right before practice,” Swift said. “… I just do the best I can off the field so I can produce on the field. Because when I’m on the field, people expect me to produce like I’m 100 percent. So that’s what I try to do.”
While he may not be 100 percent yet — he declined to put a number on it — Swift appears to be getting much closer to it. That was evident with his performance against the Gators.
Swift finally recorded what for him has been an elusive 100-yard rushing game. He had 104 yards on 12 carries. He added two catches for another 13 yards.
Swift’s best work came in the second half. He had 6 carries for 66 yards after halftime, including that aforementioned 33-yard TD run.
Though it looked somewhat like it, it wasn’t the same play that made Swift famous when he went 64 yards to pay dirt for the game-deciding touchdown against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game last December.
“(Center) Lamont (Gaillard) did a great job. Him and (left guard) Solomon (Kindley) had a great double-team and Lamont got off on the backer,” Swift said. “So I was real patient and as soon as the hole opened, I just kind of burst through there. Then Tyler Simmons did a great job of blocking the cornerback as well.”
Swift also had a jaw-dropping scamper in the first quarter that featured him faking out a defender in the hole and rambling on down the field for 23 yards.
Both those runs earned Swift what running backs coach Dell McGee calls “Dawg yards.” They’re awarded any time a back gets yards over and above what is provided for them by the blocking on any given play.
“Making people miss, running over people, just creating yards,” Swift explained. “The line can only get you to a certain point, so anything you do beyond that is Dawg yards.”
Swift led the team in Dawg yards and all other kinds last Saturday. Now the Bulldogs are hopeful he and Holyfield can continue to build on the “Thunder and Lightning” roles that they envisioned for them coming into the season. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel used that to pretty good effect during the championship run last season.
Bulldogs fans saw that coming into focus against the Gators as the two backs combined for 175 yards on 32 carries. In this latest instance, Holyfield got the tough yards on 20 carries, while Swift ran down the big chunks mostly late in the game. Those roles have been reversed in other games.
“We are competitive, but that’s my brother; that’s my man,” Swift said of Holyfield. “We do a lot together on and off the field. We complement each other real well.”
Meanwhile, freshman James Cook was the only other back with a rushing attempt against Florida. So it appears — for now at least — that the running back rotation has been pared down to two.
“We finally listened to you guys and gave them the ball, right?” Smart quipped.
It will be especially important that the Bulldogs get that kind of production out of the ground game if they’re going to beat Kentucky on Saturday.
“They’ve got a great team over there at Kentucky,” Swift said. “They’re doing a great job. … Their defense is one of the best in the country right now. So we’ve just got to really stay focused and do what we do. If we do I think we’ll be all right.”
Ideally, No. 6 Georgia will go into Lexington and blow out the Wildcats to repeat as SEC East champs. More likely, it will be another close game and come down to the Bulldogs needing to knock out some first downs with their run game in the fourth quarter.
Thanks to the Florida game, Georgia knows that’s still there if it’s needed.
“We just did a great job in the second half of, first and foremost, converting on third down,” Swift said. “Jake (Fromm) did a great job of just putting us in the right position on third down and the offensive line did a great job of just moving guys off the ball. Our backs just kept our rails right and ran the ball.”
That, more than almost anything, represents bliss for Smart.
“Physicality has come over time, and they earned that physicality,” Smart said of late-game run production. “We talked about earning (the Florida) victory, that it would not be bought on discount. We had to earn it, and we did.”
The Bulldogs will have to earn it at Kentucky, too. And a “healthier” can Swift can help them do that.