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Post Can there be Olympus without Zeus?

Thursday August 23, 2018

Because we need another “what it all means” piece about Zamir White’s knee.

Zamir White’s season-ending injury on Saturday was tough to take. The first concern of course is for White himself. He’s worked extremely hard to come back from his knee injury last fall, and he was just beginning to see the payoff from that work. White’s commitment last summer jump-started the amazing 2018 signing class, and landing the top tailback in the nation did a lot to ease concerns over losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

White’s impact on the 2018 backfield has been in flux since his first injury. At first we had to consider the possibility of a backfield without White. Then as stories of his Chubb-like rehab appeared, we were encouraged that Zeus might be available for some, if not most, of the season. Preseason camp opened at the beginning of August, and Kirby Smart announced straight away that White was cleared for all activity (though still in a brace.) White might really see action from the season opener, and fans once again entertained dreams of another loaded backfield.

This latest injury brings us back full circle to the state of things last fall. Georgia must forge ahead with a backfield minus Zamir White for now. The good news is that plenty of pieces are in place for Georgia to have another productive rushing attack. The offensive line is talented, as deep as it’s been in years, and well-coached. Georgia will get yards on the ground from other sources. We’ll see Hardman and other receivers used on wildcat snaps and also on sweeps. Justin Fields adds a new rushing threat from the quarterback position, though Georgia’s depth concerns at QB could limit how many designed runs are called for Fields. There are three returning tailbacks with meaningful game experience. There’s another highly-rated newcomer who might prove to be one of the most exciting additions to the roster.

Even with all of that going for them, I do think the absence of White will be noticed. It’s not just his special skill set. He’s a certain style of back that filled a specific niche in the backfield that isn’t completely covered without him. Here’s what I mean:

Swift was devastating as a third option behind Chubb and Michel, and he seems to have all of the attributes of a star tailback. He’s about as proven as anyone can be without having started. The only question about Swift is his ability to scale his production with 2-3x as many carries. Chubb, Michel, and Gurley all missed time at some point in their careers with injuries. Can Swift prove to be durable enough to last through the season as the primary tailback? One fewer back makes that more difficult especially over a season that could last 15 games. Georgia will surely use its depth to manage the load on Swift, but his availability is the key to Georgia’s running game. A lingering groin injury from spring will have to be watched.

Holyfield and Herrien are in what I’d call Richard Samuel territory. You have some nice highlights, mostly from garbage time. Speed, size, and strength aren’t a problem. There are questions about vision and elusiveness and similar traits that distinguish decent backs from special ones. There’s no shame in struggling to break through behind Chubb and Michel, and no one is asking these two to replace a pair of top draft picks. But in addition to replacing Chubb and Michel, the Dawgs are also looking to replace Swift. Trotting in Swift after a steady pounding of Chubb and Michel was almost unfair, and both Holyfield and Herrien will have that opportunity to be the coup de grâce of this year’s team. Forget replacing Nick and Sony – matching Swift’s 618 yards from a year ago as the third tailback will require either Holyfield or Herrien to more than double their output.

James Cook is now the lone newcomer, and how fortunate are we that he saw an opportunity at Georgia? Reports out of preseason camp have Cook as a potential breakout star, and that would help to ease the blow of White’s absence. Most of the accolades though have had to do with Cook’s versatility and his potential as a receiving weapon out of the backfield. Sometimes a tailback just has to be a tailback and get three yards between the tackles. Comparisons of White to Chubb and Cook to Sony Michel were convenient shorthand during recruiting, but the versatility of Michel was only part of his story. Michel was a solid guy who carried at least 20 more pounds as a senior than Cook will as a freshman. Necessity forced Michel to learn how to run inside as the featured back when Chubb was injured in 2015, and he became a better and more-rounded tailback for it. I don’t expect that of Cook right out of the gate.

The situation isn’t as dire as it was from, say, 2003-2005. Those were some very good Georgia teams that earned two SEC East titles, but the running game might have held those teams back from even bigger things. Georgia isn’t trotting out inexperienced players unsure of who might step up. 2007 might be a good measuring stick for this group – you had Knowshon Moreno bust out for 1,334 yards, and Thomas Brown had a solid 779. Both averaged over 5 YPC. Kregg Lumpkin was the only other tailback of note on that roster, and he was injured. The 2018 group is deeper, but I’d like to see if two backs emerge to be as productive as the Moreno/Brown tandem was in 2007. A third back north of 500 yards would mean another formidable rushing attack.

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