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Post Running backs

Thursday August 18, 2005

For some reason, I find myself really scrutinizing the running game. UGASports.com named them the top unit in the SEC. Some are already looking for a nickname for the unit. It’s pretty much a given that Georgia’s backfield is loaded. It’s not that I doubt the talent of anyone involved, but the running game is held up as something we can lean on this season, and that deserves a closer look.

Taking into account the four Richt years, the running game has been hit or miss. The 2001 season saw an injured Musa Smith and an ineffective Jasper Sanks eventually give way to an amazing finish by Verron Haynes. Haynes’ performances against Ole Miss, Tech, and Boston College not only earned him a shot at the NFL, but they also eased concerns that Richt wouldn’t run the ball or feed a hot tailback. The end of 2001 set the table for 2002. A healthy Musa Smith and a veteran offensive line produced Georgia’s first 1,000+ yard season for a tailback since 1992, and Musa eclipsed that mark easily.

In 2003, the running game slipped somewhat. A new offensive line and the lack of a feature back put much more of the offense onto the capable shoulders of David Greene. The Dawgs started 2003 with Tony Milton and Michael Cooper as the backs. Tyson Browning also saw some time but was much more of a situational back. 2003 also saw the emergence of freshman Kregg Lumpkin. Lump turned a lot of heads in Knoxville and had a strong performance in the bowl game, but the legacy of the 2003 running game was defined by the lack of a single 100+ yard game from a tailback. But Lumpkin’s forward momentum was stopped cold on the first day of fall practice in 2004 by a season-ending ACL injury.

Danny Ware made sure in the very first game that the 100-yard mark wouldn’t be the unreachable upper limit for tailbacks in 2004. A Georgia back ran for over 100 yards in seven games in 2004. The freshman duo of Thomas Brown and Ware were up to the job, and a maturing line helped matters. Though the performance of the freshmen backs was far and away the story of the running game in 2004, two negatives helped to shape how the story would end. First was the injuries. Both Ware and Brown missed playing time with a variety of injuries. Ware had to leave both the South Carolina and Kentucky games after great starts. Brown’s hamstring delayed his debut. Then came the fumbles. Georgia’s 14 fumbles lost in 2004 were second-worst in the SEC, and two games with multiple fumbles by Ware gave Brown the opportunity to finish out the season as the starter. Brown had a decent game at Auburn, but he (and much of the Georgia offense) was shut down against Georgia Tech. Brown finished the season on a high note in the Outback Bowl with a touchdown run and a critical late-game conversion which enabled Georgia to run out the clock for the win.

So now we come to 2005. For the first time in a while, the offensive line has a couple of seniors. Lumpkin has finally been cleared for full-speed practice. Ware has changed how he holds the ball to address the fumbles, and he too is healthy. Brown is still one of the strongest guys on the team pound-for-pound and looks to be the starter.

Even with all of these pieces coming into place, the accolades for the running game comes mostly from its future potential. All of the three backs have had very, very good moments. But Dawg fans are still waiting for someone other than Musa Smith to break the “Jasper Line” – the 900 yards earned by Jasper Sanks in 1999 which still stands as the second-highest season rushing total for a Bulldog running back since 1992. Thomas Brown came close last year. For he and any of the others to distinguish themselves and challenge the totals of Hearst and Musa Smith, there are a few things that have to happen:

  • Can the three-headed monster stay healthy? All missed some games as freshmen.
  • Can the line lead the way consistently? The OL showed us something against a very good Wisconsin defensive line, but the Georgia Tech performance was rough. “Veteran” and “experienced” doesn’t in and of itself mean “good”.
  • Can the passing game keep defenses honest? Coach Richt has been candid about the need to find a playmaker at receiver so that the Dawgs can go over the top when defenses focus on the run. Shockley to Bailey was pretty effective at times in limited action last season. Leonard Pope is another proven weapon. However they manage it, the Dawgs must find a way to keep safeties and linebackers thinking about the pass and get these tailbacks into the open field. It’s funny to suggest that the prospects of the running game rest on a receiver, but that’s the way it is – a weakness or imbalance would help keep the Georgia running game in low gear.
  • Can the backs be an effective weapon in the passing game? Auburn’s unit last year is the obvious model. With the exception of Tyson Browning’s nice touchdown on a screen pass against South Carolina last year, screens and other passes to the backs were generally recipes for disaster right up to the end of the Outback Bowl.

I’m as excited as anyone about seeing what this running game can do. As Coach Richt has noted, Georgia has been led in rushing by a freshman for two seasons. Finally the backs getting the bulk of the carries will have a bit of experience and age under their belts with some quality results to show for it. Georgia fans have been teased for nearly five seasons – as soon as Haynes and Smith got going, their eligibility ran out. Cooper fought injuries during the season. Lumpkin got hopes up with a good bowl game and then an injury put his career on hold. Ware and Brown had no problems getting to 100 yards – sometimes. The Bulldog Nation is salivating over the prospects of a 1,400-yard back or a thunder-and-lightning duo…the thought of a dominating trio seems too good to be true. Will it turn out that way? Georgia’s success on the ground is not a given – several of the things listed above need to happen first, and those questions have implications across the entire offense.

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