Too many tailbacks never a problem in the SEC

Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley make a dynamic duo. (Rob Saye / UGA)

Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley make a dynamic duo. (Rob Saye / UGA)

“What’s Georgia gonna do with all those tailbacks?”

That’s what a guy getting on the elevator the other day wanted to know, and I must say I was kind of relieved to have someone talking to me about Bulldog running backs rather than Tray Matthews and the troubled secondary.

If all Mark Richt and Mike Bobo had returning was the “Don’t call us Gurshall” duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, they’d be in excellent shape, barring a return of last year’s injury bug. But the tailback corps in Athens also includes sophomore Brendan Douglas, who did solid if not exactly game-breaker duty subbing for the injured Gurley and Marshall last year, and promising redshirt freshman A.J. Turman. Throw in the tantalizing potential of another pair of five-star freshman backs coming in this summer, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and you’ve got folks thinking back to the Tailback U days of the Vince Dooley era.

Gurley, widely considered one of the two best running backs in the country “when he’s healthy” (as all the pundits seem required to add these days) already has been picked to Phil Steele’s 2014 preseason All-America first team, and recently when ESPN.com ranked the SEC’s backs, Gurley was No. 1 ahead of Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (once almost a Dawg) and South Carolina’s Mike Davis. Their Dawg porn-ish summation of the Dogs’ top back: “Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.”

Georgia's coaches like what Brendan Douglas has done in relief. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

Georgia’s coaches like what Brendan Douglas has done in relief. (Sean Taylor / UGA)

In ranking the conference teams in terms of groups of running backs, ESPN gave the edge to Bama, which it said might have the nation’s best backfield, with Yeldon, Henry, Kenyan Drake and Jalston Fowler. But Georgia ranked second, with Gurley “arguably the country’s best running back” along with Marshall, Michel, Chubb, Douglas and Turman.

That’s the way it ought to be in the SEC, but that hasn’t always been the case. I remember that posse of big backs LSU brought into the SEC Championship game in 2011, while Georgia hobbled along with Isaiah Crowell and not much else.

No, we’re not going to be Tailback U again any time soon, if only because times have changed offensively in college football and Bobo correctly is running a diversified offense that values the pass as much as the run. But as we’ve seen in recent years when injuries have kept Georgia from being able to field a top-level tailback, the Dogs’ big-yardage, high-scoring offense just doesn’t click as well if the other team doesn’t respect the running threat.

That’s where depth comes in, and Richt’s team certainly will have that this season, especially once the true freshmen are eased into the rotation. Anticipation already was running high for Chubb and Michel, but those recent photos of Chubb practically leaping tall buildings in a single bound at the Georgia state track meet have set Bulldog fandom all atwitter.

Which brings us back to the question raised by the guy on the elevator and a lot of other Bulldog observers: How are Richt and Bobo going to juggle that much talent, some wonder, while still giving Gurley the carries a Heisman candidate needs and deserves? At the same time, others ask, would it be wise for Richt to keep from needing to use Gurley as a more than 20-carry-per-game back in order to try and keep him healthy for the entire season?

The head coach obviously knows Gurley is his biggest weapon. As the Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson recently tweeted, Richt told Bulldog fans in Augusta of No. 3: “We’re gonna ride that big hoss.”

But Richt addressed the concern about how to use all those other backs recently, the Athens Banner-Herald reported. “If [Gurley is] healthy,” Richt said, “he’s gonna make great runs. You’ve gotta give him the ball.”

Nick Chubb is looking forward to competing for playing time. (Alexander Acosta / AJC special)

Nick Chubb is looking forward to competing for playing time. (Alexander Acosta / AJC special)

However, he added, “Keith Marshall is very talented, obviously. Brendan Douglas, we like what he did. We’ve got a couple of highly-touted guys coming in. We want to see what they can do. Are we going to give it to [Gurley] 30 times a game and wear him to a nub? No.”

Still, Richt said, “there may be a game or two where he’s feeling it, and we’ve got momentum, and he’s pounding, and we’re going to let him pound.” He added, though, that “Douglas pounds pretty good, too. Keith Marshall can get a home run at any moment, so we’ll use all those guys.”

Of course, first they have to learn to block, a key duty for a back in Bobo’s offense and a skill many star runners seem to come out of high school lacking. But, so far, indications are that nobody’s planning on redshirting Chubb or Michel, so it’s up to the UGA staff to figure out how to use them.

When it comes to getting playing time for the talented freshmen, redshirt-senior QB Hutson Mason noted in the Banner-Herald that “it’s going to be interesting. We’ve got a lot of depth at running back and you figure there’s got to be a way to some way we can find, whether it’s punt returns or kick returns, just getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands.”

I like Mason’s idea as a way of getting Chubb and Michel’s feet wet. While the Georgia coaches undoubtedly will be thinking about putting Michel’s high school teammate, wide receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie, back to field punts, giving the newbie backs a chance to break a long kickoff return seems awfully tempting.

Sony Michel gives Georgia a second highly rated freshman back coming in. (Special)

Sony Michel gives Georgia a second highly rated freshman back coming in. (Special)

And keeping in mind that Gurley has become quite a receiving threat for the Dogs, having Mason throw to one of the freshmen out in the flat might be a good way to introduce them as well.

Plus, Bobo has made it clear that there’ll be a healthy competition for playing time. As Chubb told the ABH, “I’m just going to push them and they’ll push me,” Chubb said, “and the best will play.”

Sounds like the kind of problem SEC coaches love to have.

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