HOOVER, Ala. — Georgia boasts arguably the best running back group in the nation, yet still it has much to prove in being able to consistently move the ball on the ground.
“You really don’t know until the season,” star tailback Nick Chubb said last Tuesday, when he was joined by fellow senior Sony Michel at SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. “I can say those guys up front are working hard and we’re pushing them as hard as we can.”
Chubb and Michel have combined to rush for 5,835 yards and 46 touchdowns at Georgia, but they can’t do it by themselves. How well an offensive line with three new starters performs and how effective an offense with some new wrinkles in the second-year under Kirby Smart and coordinator Jim Chaney will factor into whether Georgia can improve on a run game that ranked ninth in the SEC last season at 191.1 yards per game.
“I think in the SEC, when you talk about running the ball successfully, it comes in different forms and fashions,” Smart said. “To sit there and say, you’re going to play the top four defenses in the SEC and pound it down their throat, it doesn’t exist. Watch LSU historically. They’re one of the most physical, dominant run football teams and even they struggle when they play the formidable defenses.”
Eight of Georgia’s 12 opponents this season rank 57th or lower nationally in stopping the run — including six that are 70th or lower with Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri at 104, 110 and 112 respectively.
Georgia avoids facing the SEC’s top run defenses in Alabama and LSU, and the highest rated run defense it will face is Appalachian State at No. 20 at 125.9 yards per game. Auburn is No. 27 and Florida is No. 38.
The Bulldogs were limited to 101 yards at Missouri, 75 in a homecoming loss to Vanderbilt and 21 against Florida in Jacksonville. That prompted Chubb and Michel in a game week meeting to ask Chaney to get them the ball more.
Chubb said this week they wanted to go back to being a more downhill, physical team, but these days that may not be enough.
“You’ve got to find creative ways to run it,” Smart said. “Do I feel much better about that now? Yes. I feel much better about that. We’ve still got three guys that started on the offensive line that are gone. Are we going to be better on the offensive line? I think we’ve got good players in those positions and really good competition.”
It should help that Chubb is another season removed from the devastating 2015 knee injury that cut short his sophomore season.
“I know I’m working hard to push my body and try to get back to where I once was, I guess,” Chubb said. “We’ll see come September.”
Smart said that Chubb didn’t feel like he was at 100 percent last year, but teammates raved about what they saw of him this spring.
“Oh man, he looks amazing,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “He looks like the Nick that everyone’s always known.”
Chubb, who wasn’t projected as a first round NFL pick, told Smart he was returning for his senior season when the coach was hosting recruits at dinner on official visits after the regular season.
“When he called me back in, I figured this was it, I just didn’t know the verdict,” Smart said. “I was holding onto every word he said.”
As for Michel, he could have an expanded role after lining up as a slot receiver at times this spring
He was asked if he should be considered a receiver or tailback now.
“I guess I’ll be a running back until otherwise,” Michel said smiling. “If I get the opportunity to be able to catch some balls, it would be great.”
There were encouraging signs in the run game this spring with a line that was said to get more push.
“I’m very confident because we’ve got a lot of players that are willing to step up,” Michel said. “Obviously, we’re building an offensive line. They’re working hard this offseason.”
Added Smart: “We certainly have bigger people, but those questions will be answered in fall camp and in those first games.”