Georgia made it to the College Football National Championship in 2017 in no small part because of the play of freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. His solid, if not spectacular, stewardship of the Bulldog offense kept the Red and Black from beating themselves time and again. It’s also worth noting that many of the more memorable plays of the 2017 season (the flea flicker versus Mississippi State, Terry Godwin’s electrifying touchdown catch against Notre Dame . . .) came courtesy of the arm of #11.
But make no mistake: Georgia ran to an SEC title in 2017.
While Fromm was throwing for 174 very efficient yards per contest, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and a Roman legion of reserves pounded out 258.4 yards per game on the ground, 3876 of them in total. They demoralized the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium. They controlled the game against Georgia Tech. They wore down a first-rate Auburn defense in Atlanta, and struck for big play after big play to keep pace with Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma. Whatever could have ailed Georgia offensively in 2017 was cured by the running game.
Things may be a little different in 2018, but not as different as opponents would prefer. Let’s start by stating the obvious: you just don’t replace a tandem like Michel and Chubb. Last year they combined to form the most effective SEC rushing tandem since Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, amassing 2572 yards and 31 touchdowns between them.
The “thunder and lightning” trope trotted out so often in reference to tailbacks lost all applicability with regard to Chubb and Michel because both proved capable of either role. Michel could break it outside or run between the tackles. Chubb’s mass belied his moves in the open field and acceleration through the hole. It’s no exaggeration to say that either could have on his own started for any team in America, and that having both at the Bulldogs’ disposal at the same time was just unfair.
Jim Chaney and Dell McGee can’t replace Chubb and Michel in 2018. They can trot out a different but nearly as effective alternative. D’Andre Swift of course enters the season as the presumptive starter. The sophomore got better and better as 2017 wore on, to the point that he was just as explosive or more so than the seniors by the back third of the season. Swift churned out 618 yards on the ground as a freshman, but what is really eye-popping was his 7.6 yards per carry average, second only to the other-worldly 7.9 yards per carry Sony Michel averaged.
The Georgia rushing attack as currently constituted relies on exceptionally large young men opening equally large holes in the defense for backs strong enough to beat one defender in the hole and fast/elusive enough to beat everyone else to the endzone. D’Andre Swift is definitely that guy, and if he remains healthy is likely to put at least 1400 yards on the stat sheet. That would be more than either Chubb or Michel in 2017.
Behind Swift things get a little interesting as a thematic struggle takes over the depth chart. As the season rolls on a battle will play out between a pair of steady veterans and a pair of freshman phenoms. Either way I think the Bulldog offense wins.
Juniors Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield return and look to emerge from the long shadow of Michel and Chubb. Both I believe are better backs than their statistics indicate. As the old expression goes, there’s only one ball. And neither Herrien nor Holyfield was going to get as many carries as the three guys in front of them on the depth chart barring injury. Georgia’s ridiculously, statistically-improbable good fortune on the injury front in 2017 is another story for another day. But for purposes of today’s conversation it meant that the H&H Express really only saw a series here and there and a little more action in mop-up time.
That will have to change in 2018. To paraphrase that modern classic of gridiron cinema, Varsity Blues, D’Andre Swift is only one man. He certainly can’t carry the ball 379 times in 2018 as Sony Chubb/Nick Michel did in 2017. I’m already on record predicting Holyfield takes a big step forward this season, though his 50 touches for 293 yards in 2017 (5.86 yards per carry) were nothing to sneeze at. But I also think Herrien doesn’t get enough credit for his speed at 6’0 and 210 pounds. I expect that in the coming months I will write a couple of stories referencing an electrifying Herrien dash coming against winded/softened defenses.
But if veteran contributors finally getting their moment in the sun isn’t your cup of literary tea, might I interest you in a couple of fresh-faced blue chippers brimming with talent? Because Kirby Smart has those, too. There’s freshman Zamir White, the consensus #1 tailback recruit in America in the class of 2018. “Zeus” helped carry his Scotland County, North Carolina squad deep into the state playoffs, compiling 2086 yards and 34 rushing touchdowns while averaging 14.1 yards per carry (!!!) before an ACL injury ended his season.
Georgia fans feared the worst, but further examination revealed that while White’s knee required surgery the injury was not as bad as it could have been. The #9 ranked recruit regardless of position in the class of 2018 participated in individual drills during spring practice in Athens, and recently posted video of the kickboxing he’s added to his rehab regimen.
It’s still up in the air exactly how much of White we’ll see in 2018. With Swift, Holyfield, Herrien, and fellow freshman James Cook available, redshirting White wouldn’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened.
Except for the fact that barring another injury or a pact to return like the one made by the 2017 seniors, Zamir White is very likely to only be in Athens for three seasons. The 6’1, 220 pound tailback is just something else entirely, a combination of size, speed, and hands that I don’t think Georgia has had, well, in at least three seasons. Since another North Carolinian roamed Sanford Stadium. If he’s ready, White will crack the lineup in 2018. And once he does, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of it.
And that’s to say nothing of south Florida standout James Cook, another signee in the 2018 class. Cook was ranked the #41 player in the country, the #8 player in the state of Florida, and the #3 all-purpose back in America. He would have been the crown jewel of any backfield recruiting class that did not also include Zamir White, and there’s a powerful risk of underestimating Cook’s potential because of White’s. Make no mistake, on his own Cook is also likely to see the field in 2018, and how often will be a function of how well he picks things up and how the guys already on campus respond to the challenge from he and Zeus. That battle is going to make for some pretty compelling football.
The biggest reason Georgia might not replicate its 2017 dominance on the ground is that it simply may not need to. With Jake Fromm returning under center, Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman, and several talented young receivers back, and a veteran tight end unit, the Bulldogs will have the option of opening things up a little.
And while the UGA defense brings back a ton of talent, that talent does not include veterans like Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Dominick Sanders, Trenton Thompson, and Davin Bellamy. There is the potential for Georgia to need to score points at some point in 2018, and that may involve going to the air more.
But be that as it may the backbone of the Red and Black attack is likely to remain its punishing stable of running backs. The cast may change, but the show should remain largely the same. Until later...