Of Expectations and Perceptions: The Curious Case of the Georgia Bulldogs' Isaiah Crowell

What would you give for the Georgia Bulldogs to have a true freshman tailback who made the nation stand up and take notice?

I’m talking about a rookie running back who made the Maxwell Award watch list. I’m talking about an underclassman who was named first-team freshman All-American by CBSSports.com, Rivals.com, and Yahoo! Sports. I’m talking about a guy who was named to the freshman All-SEC team by the league’s coaches and was declared the conference freshman of the year by both the Associated Press and Rivals.com. I’m talking about a guy who was named the SEC freshman of the week four times during his inaugural collegiate season, including twice in contests against the Auburn Tigers and the South Carolina Gamecocks. What would you give for a first-year tailback like that?

Well, guess what, Bulldog Nation? You had a guy exactly like that last year. His name was Isaiah Crowell.

If that surprises you, you’re not alone. Last night, I was interviewed for a podcast that soon will be posted at The Solid Verbal, and I, too, was more than a little noncommittal about the highly-hyped recruit who capped off the Bulldogs’ 2011 signing class by holding up a puppy at his signing ceremony.

I, like many denizens of Bulldog Nation, questioned Crowell’s mental and physical toughness, albeit not as harshly as some; I, like many of you, raised an eyebrow at the “OR” next to his name on the depth chart, which left me wondering about the severity of his injury and the strength of his commitment to fulfilling his considerable potential. For Crowell, the sky is the limit, but is he willing to put in the work to fly high the hard way?

Last impressions are lasting impressions, and Crowell closed out the campaign by rushing for 39 total yards over the course of the team’s final four games. The autumn that ended with a whimper, both for Isaiah and for Georgia, sent us into the offseason dissatisfied with the Bulldogs and the fellow who was supposed to be their marquee tailback, and there certainly is room for legitimate criticism of each.

Even so, though, there also ought to be room to recall that an 18-year-old kid playing on a sprained ankle and nursing a wounded rib in the first semester of his collegiate career had a 30-carry day against Ole Miss in Oxford, an 81-yard day in a victory over Florida in Jacksonville, and a two-touchdown day in an eight-point win over Tennessee in Knoxville. This same true freshman started only seven games yet rushed for 100 or more yards four times, tallying 118 on the ground against South Carolina and grinding out 132 against Auburn.

Not all the numbers are so favorable, of course. Crowell’s 70.8 rushing yards per game and five touchdowns fell well short of expectations, and his 4.6 yards per carry did not measure up to Herschel Walker’s 5.9 yards per carry in 1980 (though it was not far removed from the Goal Line Stalker’s sophomore average of 4.9 yards per rush). Inconsistency plagued Crowell’s freshman season, so much so that most of us struggle to view the glass as anything other than half-empty, recalling only the way Isaiah always seemed to take himself out of the game right after breaking off a big run, then ask to be put back in right after one of his teammates had done likewise. It made him look weak and selfish, and made us doubt his dedication and drive.

In truth, though, we don’t know how healthy he was, and, while many of us know about the difficulty of making the transition from our parents’ homes to the Classic City as teenagers, few of us had to contend with that life-altering change under anything like the glare of the spotlight that shone on Isaiah Crowell long before he ever set foot on campus as a student . . . indeed, from long before he ever made the critical decision of where he intended to go to college.

Touted beyond measure, he did not meet our unreasonable expectations. Playing as a rookie, he made rookie mistakes. For these shortcomings, we assailed him mercilessly as he outpaced every other freshman in the conference. At the end of the day, then, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, we are left with this:

Player TFS* Att. Yds.
Herschel Walker 1980 274 1,616
Rodney Hampton 1987 126 890
Garrison Hearst 1990 162 717
Thomas Brown 2004 172 875
Isaiah Crowell 2011 185 850

* True Freshman Season

We can, if we choose, split hairs over Crowell’s productivity; is the fact that Isaiah Crowell had 59 more carries but 40 fewer yards than Rodney Hampton did in their respective true freshman seasons a testament to the younger player’s pronounced inferiority or to his underrated durability? (Incidentally, Hampton’s 7.06 yards per carry in 1987 shattered a school record set by Charley Trippi in 1942, and his 890 rushing yards remain the second-most by a true freshman in Georgia history, so not being in Rodney’s league is not exactly a sign of weakness.) Heading into his sophomore season, Crowell remains the Rorschach test of our Georgia fandom as much as ever.

Question his work ethic, if you must. Doubt his toughness, if you insist. Deem him a disappointment, if you choose. Consider, however, the company he is keeping. Through injury, inconsistency, and suspension, Isaiah Crowell nevertheless put up numbers that put him in contention to be compared legitimately to the most beloved and productive true freshman tailbacks ever to have worn the silver britches and a jersey bearing a number other than 34.

Look at those statistics, and understand that the on-field indictment of Isaiah Crowell is that he is not Herschel Walker. Parse those figures, and recognize that an undamaged rib and a fully functioning ankle last fall might have meant we were talking today about Georgia’s true freshman “4-H” club of Herschel, Hampton, Hearst, and a healthy Isaiah. Curse Crowell for not being Kal-El, but don’t dare assert that he isn’t from Krypton.

We are inclined, due to proximity in time, to liken Crowell to Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and to lay their sins at Isaiah’s feet, forgetting all the while that history is littered with such shortcomings among the ranks of Georgia running backs who toiled in Walker’s lengthy shadow. From Keith Henderson and Tim Worley being declared academically ineligible in the mid-’80s to Torin Kirtsey and Jasper Sanks eventually being sent packing in the mid-’90s and early ‘00s, respectively, we have seen too many talented tailbacks show themselves the door. It is far too early to consign Crowell to the same sad fate.

Remember the fondness you felt for Garrison Hearst after 1990, and remember how your faith was rewarded in 1991 and 1992. (Hearst, like Crowell, scored five touchdowns as a freshman, before scoring nine as a sophomore and 19 as a junior.) Remember Rodney Hampton as a freshman, and remember that he never lost to Florida. Remember the three-year rushing tallies compiled by Hearst (3,232) and Hampton (2,668)---the second- and third-highest totals in school history by players with three-season varsity careers, behind only Walker---and remember that Crowell can catch them both. (If Isaiah averages 910 yards in his sophomore and junior seasons, he will surpass Rodney; if Isaiah approaches 1,200 yards in each of the next two years, he will outpace Garrison.)

There is no guarantee that Crowell will match any of those marks, of course, just as neither Hampton nor Hearst were assured of achieving such stellar numbers after freshman seasons similar to our current projected starter’s at that position. Still, there is some cause for hope; in the last six seasons, the Bulldogs have produced four two-time SEC freshmen of the week (Matthew Stafford in 2006, A.J. Green in 2008, Washaun Ealey in 2009, and Aaron Murray in 2010), one three-time SEC freshman of the week (Knowshon Moreno in 2007), and one four-time SEC freshman of the week (Crowell in 2011). Maybe, just maybe, it’s a tad too early to give up on Isaiah Crowell quite yet.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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