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Post An appreciation of Sony Michel

Sunday February 3, 2019

Five Bulldogs return to Atlanta this Sunday with an opportunity to leave as Super Bowl champs. Todd Gurley and Ramik Wilson will suit up for the Rams, and David Andrews and Sony Michel will play for the Patriots. Isaiah Wynn is on injured reserve for the Patriots. While at Georgia all five experienced some form of heartbreak in downtown Atlanta whether in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium or next door where the Georgia Dome stood, so at least a couple of guys will be able to put those bad memories behind them. The losers will be first in line to press the button the next time a downtown stadium is imploded.

All of them have great stories that brought them to this moment. Wilson is a survivor going from draft pick to the practice squad at Kansas City and has found a new role in Los Angeles. Andrews began as an undrafted free agent and is now a multi-year mainstay of a championship offensive line. Most of the coverage this week has focused on Gurley and Michel, two favorites from Georgia’s proud tailback tradition. Gurley is established as a superstar in LA and signed a record contract extension. Michel shut up some local doubters with a solid rookie season and has exploded in the playoffs with 242 yards and five touchdowns in two postseason games.

Gurley became Georgia’s feature tailback right out of the gate in the 2012 season opener against Buffalo. Turnover at the position had opened the door, and Gurley burst through with at least 100 yards rushing in four of Georgia’s first five games. He was the only back to reach 100 yards against Alabama in 2012, and so long as he was healthy (and cleared to play) he was the alpha dawg in Georgia’s talented backfield for the next three seasons.

It also didn’t take long for Sony Michel to reach the endzone at Georgia, but it wasn’t as a tailback. In Georgia’s second game of the 2014 season, at South Carolina, Michel lined up in the slot, caught an inside screen, and sprinted untouched for Georgia’s first score of the game. He got carries when he could behind Gurley and Chubb and had a big 155-yard, three-touchdown game against Troy. A broken shoulder blade against Tennessee came at a bad time: Gurley’s mid-season suspension and Michel’s injury placed much of the running game on Chubb’s shoulders. Chubb responded with nearly 700 yards in four games – great for Georgia, but it put Michel on the back burner for the latter portion of the season as Chubb kept on doing Chubb things and Gurley made his triumphant return.

In hindsight we now properly consider Chubb and Michel more or less co-equals. They became the tandem that powered Georgia’s 2017 offense. It wasn’t always the case. Michel wasn’t a bust as a true freshman, but it became a question of how to get him the ball. He was used almost as James Cook was in 2018 – some tailback work, some passes out of the backfield, some time in the slot, and even some special teams. Michel had over 100 all-purpose yards in the 2014 Belk Bowl, and only about 30 of those came running the ball. (There was even a kickoff return TD called back.) His talent and versatility were never in doubt, but it was tough to earn carries behind Gurley and Chubb.

Even with Gurley departing after 2014, Chubb was the standout through the first five games of 2015. Chubb had no fewer than 120 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry) in a game while Michel’s best production during that stretch was 75 yards against Southern. If there was an event that changed the production and perception of Sony Michel at Georgia, is was the gruesome injury to Nick Chubb at Tennessee in 2015. The immediate concern was whether Michel could take the increased workload with a thin backfield. Keith Marshall had never been the same since his own 2013 injury, and Brendan Douglas was giving all he had in his role. Sony proved he could be a physical back and was no frail scatback, but his involvement in the offense had been limited. Prior to that 2015 Tennessee game, Michel had never rushed more than 16 times and only had double-digit carries in four of 13 games.

Michel of course was up to the challenge. He had at least 20 carries in all remaining 2015 game except for Florida (because Georgia had a much better gameplan in mind for the 2015 Florida game.) Michel finished the season with 1,136 rushing yards and over 1,400 yards from scrimmage. That stretch of eight games to end the 2015 season changed how I and many other Georgia fans looked at Michel. He wasn’t Chubb’s backup, he wasn’t a positionless skill player, and he wasn’t too undersized to handle the workload of 20+ carries per game. He had proven himself as an SEC tailback, and fans began to salivate over a Michel/Chubb backfield returning in 2016.

Another setback delayed the arrival of the fully-operational duo. Michel fractured his arm in an accident over the Independence Day holiday, and the injury left in doubt his availablity for the first few games of the season. Kirby Smart was indeed cautious with Michel’s return: Michel missed the season opener and didn’t record more than 10 carries until late September at Ole Miss. 2016 proved to be an inconsistent year for Michel and the Georgia offense. Chubb returned to form with over 1,100 yards, but Michel slid back to 840 yards and four touchdowns. Still, Michel had done more than enough to earn serious consideration from NFL scouts, and some projections had him going in the third or fourth round.

Fortunately Michel and Chubb decided together, along with several other draft-eligible teammates, to return for the 2017 season. With good health, a capable offensive line, and smothering gameplans that offered a banquet of carries, both Michel and Chubb thrived as seniors and earned first-round selections as a result of their decision to return. Michel, for his part, came away with a career-high 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 7.9 yards per carry were tops among Georgia tailbacks. Sony saved his best for last as Georgia’s top performer in the CFB playoffs. His 222 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner, in the Rose Bowl was one of the greatest performances in Georgia history. Thankfully the memory of his fourth quarter fumble was all but erased by the wildcat keeper that sent the Dawgs to Atlanta. Even in the loss to Alabama, Michel managed 98 yards against Bama’s brick wall of a defensive front. His highlight was a 26-yard gain on a 3rd and 20 that led to Georgia posting the game’s first score.

Sony Michel left Georgia third in career rushing yardage. His standout sophomore and senior seasons were bolstered by over 1,200 combined yards in injury-slowed freshman and junior seasons. His legacy is about much more than that production. He was an important prospect from south Florida – one of the highest-rated recruits in the last couple of Richt classes. Fans will remember his huge smile and of course the jazz hands that meant another six points. He brought a passion for music and recording, was a natural choice to show off Georgia’s new DJ booth in the locker room, and even left Georgia fans his own musical labor of love.

By the end of his Georgia career Michel’s production and versatility had vaulted him from a mid-round NFL prospect to the first-round choice of a Super Bowl contender. He overcame yet another injury at the start of this season and is now the Patriots’ top rushing option and arguably the hottest backs of the postseason. He’ll return to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second time in little more than a year with his sport’s biggest prize on the line. Brady, Goff, and Gurley headline the stars playing Atlanta this weekend, but Georgia fans know that Michel in a big game could have as much to do with the outcome as anyone.

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