What’s next for Georgia at tailback in post-Nick Chubb, Sony Michel era?

Georgia-tailbacks-Elijah Holyfield
Georgia tailback Elijah Holyfield, right, soars into the end zone past Florida defenders C.J. Henderson and Chauncey Gardner Jr. during the fourth quarter at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 28. The Bulldogs won, 42-7.

Elijah Holyfield is, in a way that probably isn’t very comforting to him, a symbol of how well Georgia has recruited at tailback.

Two years ago Holyfield was a highly rated recruit. A 4-star. The second-best tailback recruit in the country, according to Rivals. He could have started right away for plenty of high-major programs.

Instead he has been relegated to fifth-string duty for much of his two years at Georgia. A freshman zipped past him in the packing order last season. And now even with stars Nick Chubb and Sony Michel off to the NFL, there’s no guarantee for Holyfield, what with two more highly rated tailbacks on the way.

But ask Holyfield about all this, and he smiles. He gets it.

“It’s just a part of the process. Trusting it,” Holyfield said. “A lot of the time people try to tell you do all this other stuff and get mad, but just trust the process. It’s not like the two guys in front of me aren’t great players.”

Holyfield laughed as he said that last month in advance of the College Football Playoff. It was then pointed out that even with Chubb and Michel gone, Class of 2018 members Zamir White and James Cook were still on the way. And D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien would still be around.

Again, Holyfield smiled. Again, he gets it.

“That’s why I came to a big school, to always have competition. I don’t really worry about what they do or who they recruit,” he said. “I hope they recruit the best back because that’s what Georgia does. I’m excited, and I’m ready to compete.”

And in Georgia’s crowded backfield, there will be plenty of competition in 2018.

Swift, by virtue of his strong freshman season, is the heavy favorite to start. But hardly anybody relies on just one tailback anymore. More carries will be available.

“It’s a lot more convenient for us as a staff to have multiple backs that can carry the load,” Georgia running backs coach Dell McGee said. “But it also keeps teams off-balance because certain guys can do certain things very well … and we can really take advantage of what our guys can do. And mismatches in certain circumstances.”

The injury to White, who required knee surgery late in his high school season, will be a factor, unless he experiences a Chubb-like recovery. (White is on campus and receiving basically the same rehab that Chubb did, but his injury occurred nearly two months later in the season than Chubb’s did.) Even if White is not ready to play this season, Cook isn’t too shabby in his own right.

McGee broke them down this way: “Zamir is a big back. … James is a little smaller but he’s very, very good on the edge and the perimeter. He has a different skill set. So it’s up to us as coaches to find the right ways to utilize everyone’s skill set. And with time and the right weight program, James will develop physically.”

Where does that leave Holyfield and Herrien? Needing to compete.

As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we will take a look at the changes at each position group, the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. In this edition, in case it was not quite obvious, we begin with …

Tailbacks

Key losses: Nick Chubb (eligibility), Sony Michel (eligibility).

Top returners: D’Andre Swift, Soph.; Brian Herrien, Jr.; Elijah Holyfield, Jr.

Newcomers: Zamir White, Fr.; James Cook, Fr.

Analysis: Nobody wants to say this out loud – almost nobody, which is where this reporter usually comes in – but Georgia has been pretty lucky at tailback the last couple of years. Very few injuries, or other stuff, which is another reason Herrien and Holyfield have had to wait. (They did combine for nearly 600 yards this year, thanks to all those blowouts.) Swift, if injury free, will start and be a focal point of the offense. But it’s wide open behind him. White is an elite talent, but recovery from the torn right ACL injury makes him an unknown for 2018. Cook’s skill set compares with Herrien’s, while White’s compares with Holyfield’s. Not exactly comparable, but close enough that they could sort of be in competition with each other. It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

One guarantee: Georgia will remain a run-oriented team. It won’t be as skewed as last season (607 rushes to 305 pass attempts), but Kirby Smart still wants Georgia to be known as a physical team. If the offensive line continues to improve, that will help. Chubb and Michel will be gone, and quarterback and receiver may be improved positions. But Georgia will rely on the run, especially if the talent it keeps acquiring at tailback is as good as advertised.

Next: Wide receivers.

Also in this series

Quarterbacks

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