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Assume The Position: The Running Backs.

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As I've mentioned occasionally on this site I did not attend college on a football scholarship. Rather, a fair amount of my tuition was covered by a debate scholarship. Yes, they give those. As part of my collegiate debating experience I came into contact with professors of communications and rhetoric from many prestigious universities, and even a few professors who knew what the hell they were talking about when it comes to convincing people to see things your way.

It was one of the latter who taught me a lesson which I've carried forward into my legal career. "The question you must ask yourself in every debate" he confided, "is not what argument you could plausibly make. It's what argument you could plausibly win." 

And he was right. It's possible to find statistical support for a lot of positions which are, in the end analysis, total and utter  mongoose crap. You can take those positions, but the odds that others will see through them are remarkably high, so you'd be better served to just make an argument you can plausibly win. Or come up with a slideshow. Nobody ever made a bad sports argument couched in a slideshow.

Which brings me back around to University of Georgia football. For you see, there are a lot of arguments one could plausibly make about which position groups have underachieved most egregiously for the Bulldogs through the 2009 and 2010 football seasons. And you could certainly find plenty of statistical evidence for all of them. The secondary has given up a lot of big plays. The defensive line, save Justin Houston, has gotten surprisingly few QB hurries, sacks and tackles for loss. The tight ends have occasionally been totally absent from the box score. The offensive line has failed to find any cohesion or continuity, and gone through more lineup permutations than the Allman Brothers Band. Numbers, son. They're out there, and they're bad. You don't need to see them again.

But I believe that I could most easily win an argument that no group has underachieved so consistently over the past two seasons, both on and off the field, as the Georgia tailbacks. Consider:

  • Washaun Ealey. Ealey came to Georgia as the career leader in rushing touchdowns among Georgia high school players. Did not see the field until the 5th game of his freshman year against LSU, yet led the team in rushing with 717 yards. However, before he even began his sophomore year rumors began to spread about Ealey's work ethic and off field antics. That was before he wasarrested for hit and run and driving on a suspended license. During the 2010 season he set a UGA record for touchdowns in a game, but also committed a series of crippling turnovers and mental gaffes that seemed to hurt the Dawgs' chances of victory at the worst possible moments.  He's nowtransferred to Jacksonville State because he wants to be a premier back and was apparently unwilling to put forth the effoprt required to garner that title at the University of Georgia.
  • Caleb King. King arrived in the Classic City as one of the most heralded recruits of the Richt era. That was perhaps a bit unfair as King was coming off a severe leg injury suffered during his senior year and was clearly not fully recovered as a true freshman. King eventually became a talented if sporadic contributor in the running game and a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game. Like Ealey he found himself on the wrong side of the law (albeit for a minor offense). However rumors of academic shortcomings followed him almost from the day he set foot on campus and prior to this, his senior season, he left school for the supplemental draft after being declared academically ineligible.
  • Carlton Thomas. Prior to Richard Samuel's recent return to the backfield Thomas was the only tailback in Athens to have actually carried the ball in game action. You'd think he'd be looking to seize his opportunity to convert that experience into repetitions. Instead he'll be out of action for the Boise State game, perhaps the biggest game of Mark Richt's career, due to an unspecified violation of team rules.

To be fair, the fullbacks who have shared the backfield with the above players have been generally phenomenal. Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier were steady contributors throughout their respective careers, and Zander Ogletree showed promise both in the backfield and on special teams as a freshman in 2010. Coach Bryan McClendon took over responsibility for the Georgia tailbacks prior to the 2009 season. Correlation does not equal causation, but from this seat no coach on the Georgia staff, including Mark Richt, has as much to prove this season as McClendon. Since his stewardship over the Georgia backfield began not only have Bulldog tailbacks not been flourishing on the field of play, they've not been able to stay on the field of play. It's beginning to look like a systemic problem rather than an isolated few players not cutting the mustard.

McClendon's success may in large part be judged by the development and emergence of Isaiah Crowell. The early returns are promising. Of course Crowell is still a freshman.  And make no mistake there's being a freshman, and there's "My God! A freshman!" I'm unwilling to say that Isaiah Crowell will have the latter type of impact. He should have the advantage of not having to carry the load all by himself. As Marcus Lattimore learned last season, even the best freshman tailbacks hit the wall at some point. Crowell will tweak an ankle or bruise a shin or just get tired at some point. The question in my mind is whether we'll bring him along slowly (so that after the fact everyone is whining that we should have used him more to begin with) or whether we'll throw him to the wolves and see how he fends them off.

But the most important running back at Georgia this fall may well be another guy who's new to the backfield: Bruce Figgins. Let's be honest, 274 pounds is hellabig for a fullback. Heck, it's big for a human being in almost any line of endeavor. While other players may get the headlines, Figgins ability to learn the blocking angles and assignments of his new position, and bring his receiving abilities to bear when called upon, could be a key in allowing the other running backs to live up to their potential. I for one look forward to a Power-I formation with Figgins, John Jenkins and Richard Samuel that should be known as the Sumo-bone. Make it happen, Bobo. Page 3,471 of the green notebook. Now.

Richard Samuel. There was a lot of trepidation among fans about Samuel's move back to the offensive side of the ball after Caleb King's departure. And I don't think anyone can be blamed for that. Samuel was impressive at times as a freshman and sophomore running the ball. But he was wildly inconsistent, and had some trouble holding onto the ball, which will get you yanked from the tailback rotation quicker than just about anything else. He also never really showed a lot of elusiveness, especially when compared to Knowshon Moreno (an unfair comparison if ever there was one).

However it seems that no one can stop raving about him during this, his retirn engagement as a Bulldog tailback. Samuel is up to around 240 pounds after a redshirt season, and looks a lot more physically developed than he did 18 months ago. It's easy to forget that Samuel just turned 20 in February after arriving on campus when he was only 16. If nothing else Samuel will be the tailback you want on the field for blitz pickup on passing downs. The best case scenario may be that when he and Figgins turn the corner on the sweep it looks like 1/2 of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For a back as large and fast as Samuel elusiveness can be overrated. I don't expect Richard Samuel to jitterbug down the field throwing off spin moves and deadlegging defenders. I expect us to give him a decent hole then turn him lose to KTMFD enroute to a 6 yard gain. Then get up, jog back to the huddle, and do it again. That's the kind of 4th quarter offensive attack that no amount of green notebooking can screw up.

Boo Malcome. After drawing positive reviews from the coaches during his freshman year, Malcome seems poised to benefit from the departures of Ealey and King. That is if he can get over the nagging groin injury that has hampered him since the spring. With Richard Samuel returning to the backfield as a power running option and Isaiah Crowell allegedly picking things up ahead of schedule, one has to wonder if the window of opportunity is narrowing for Malcome to seize the tailback spot. In recent iterations of the depth chart he sits third behind Samuel and Crowell, though I think it's safe to say that he'll get the chance to show what he can do. When Mark Richt has three good tailbacks, Mark Richt plays three good tailbacks.

Carlton Thomas. As mentioned above Thomas will not be on the field for Georgia's opener against Boise State in 23 days. That's unfortunate for him because, as also noted above, this might have been his chance to shine. As it stands the junior is still looking for his breakout performance. Thomas is incredibly quick and could be a great weapon in open space if we can ever get him into open space. And so long as he holds onto the ball once he gets there. In a troupe of larger backs it's easy to dismiss Thomas as the archetypical "change of pace" guy. It will be up to him to demonstrate that he can be something more than that.

Branden Smith. While Smith will likely primarily play defense, it's not hard to imagine that he'll also get to touch the ball on offense from time to time. Smith has been electric with the ball in his hands when given the opportunity to do something more than run the shotgun draw up the middle out of the Wild Dog. That's why I believe that Smith's offensive potential depends less on his abilities (which are obvious) than on the urgency of Scott Lakatos's need to utilize those talents, and Mike Bobo's ability to get out of his own head long enough to put them to use. 

Any and all others. There are several other players on the roster who might see time in the backfield. Walkons Brandon Harton and Wes Van Dyk each had their moments during the spring. Several incoming freshmen, including Damian Swann, Malcolm Mitchell and Nick Marshall could see time on offense in some capacity. That capacity is unlikely to be a traditional tailback role, but they'll have a role nonetheless. Mitchell in particular has been lining up at receiver and like Branden Smith as a freshman is just too athletic to keep off the field.

How do you see the running back rotation shaking out this fall? Which players are you excited about? Or given the pessimistic bent of this crowd, which back do you believe will be kidnapped by separatists from the breakaway republic of Bogart? Let me know in the comments. Until later . . .

Go 'Dawgs!!!