For the better part of this decade, Georgia has boasted some of the best backfields in college football. A strong running game has been a staple of the offense, but things didn’t go according to plan last season.
Despite having Nick Chubb back from a devastating knee injury and Sony Michel returning alongside him, Georgia finished in the bottom half of the conference in nearly every rushing statistic.
In a surprise move, Chubb and Michel returned for their senior seasons and will be complemented by three talented young players in Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift. The Bulldogs will have one of the deepest backfields in the nation this fall, which is part of the reason many have picked them to win the SEC East for the first time since 2012.
To do that, Georgia needs its backs to be productive and its maligned line to play better. That’s easier said than done, however.
With the talent that the Bulldogs have, any improvement along the line should produce significantly better results.
Rushing yards per game (SEC rank): 191.23 (9)
Rushing TDs: 18 (12)
Yards/Carry: 4.66 (9)
Chubb will be the primary option, but Michel is very much a “1B” more than a second-string running back. Both have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in a single season, and they complement each other well.
If Chubb’s burst is back, he is dangerous between the tackles and can find the slightest hole to slip through before gaining 10-plus yards in a blink. Michel is at his best when operating on the perimeter and is a smooth pass-catcher.
Behind them are Herrien and Holyfield. The second-year players were expected to become the starting duo this season, but they will be terrific rotation pieces off the bench. Herrien is a major threat catching passes and runs extremely hard, while Holyfield can bounce the ball outside quickly or put his foot in the ground and get upfield.
— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) May 24, 2017
Swift is the latest highly-touted recruit to sign with the Bulldogs, but it’s unlikely he sees too much action in his first season aside from special teams. If he does, either he’s truly a special talent or something has gone horribly wrong.
Both Chubb and Michel are capable of gaining 1,000 yards during the season, but we’ve yet to see them do so together.
It seems likely that at least one of them reaches that milestone in 2017, but for both to gain 1,000 yards, other factors will come into play. For starters, Georgia will need to commit to running the ball with both players, and the offensive line will need to open up more holes than it did last year.
Last season, Georgia averaged nearly 30 passes a game, with a true freshman quarterback.
Although Georgia ran the ball 533 times in 2016, the fourth most in the SEC, it didn’t always do so effectively.
Most notable among head-scratching decisions by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was running the ball just 19 times against Florida. Chubb carried the ball nine times for 20 yards, while Michel had three carries for 2 yards.
This inability to establish the run led Chubb and Michel to meet with Chaney the next week in an effort to get the running game back on track. It worked, and Georgia responded by running the ball 42 times for 215 yards against Kentucky.
The Bulldogs eclipsed 200 yards rushing in four of their final five games, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t put up similar numbers next season. Production shouldn’t be solely measured by rushing yards, however. The biggest area of growth for Georgia’s backs is in the passing game.
With an unproven crop of receivers and a loaded backfield, Chaney and Kirby Smart have said they will try to get creative in using their running backs in the passing game. If Chaney gets the ball in the backs’ hands on the perimeter, they will be even more dangerous.
The most significant concern, not just regarding the running game but the entire offense is, Georgia’s line.
The Bulldogs’ lack of production on the ground was not for a lack of trying. Georgia finished fourth in attempts and eighth in yards. That tied Arkansas for the largest discrepancy between attempts and yards gained in the conference last year.
Given the proven track record of Chubb and Michel, the fault largely shifted to those players up front. Throughout much of the season, the running backs were met at or behind the line of scrimmage. There are few players in the country who can succeed under those situations.
In 2017, improvement along the line should provide more room for Georgia’s backs to operate. If that is the case, it’s reasonable to expect the Bulldogs’ average to return to its 2015 and 2014 levels, when it was ranked second and first in the conference, respectively, topping 5.1 yards each year.
One other concern is health. There’s a strong hope and expectation that Chubb will return to the level displayed before to his 2015 knee injury, but that’s no guarantee. If he remains a step slower or doesn’t have that same explosive burst, that will be troubling. Michel also has been dinged up over the years, which is why the backfield depth is so important.
One stat that must improve
One of the biggest discrepancies in Georgia’s running game in 2016 compared with previous seasons was the lack of big gains.
Last year, the Bulldogs had just 15 carries that picked up 20 yards or more, which was tied for the second-lowest total in the SEC. In 2015, Georgia had 29 such runs, which was the second-most, and in 2014, it led the conference with 34 carries of 20-plus yards.
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) May 22, 2017
This serves to indicate that Georgia’s backs are capable of breaking long runs, but there were factors that prevented that from happening last season.
Whether it’s Eason’s improvement that relieves pressure in the box or better play in the trenches, the Bulldogs must find a way to generate explosive plays on the ground that provide momentum and help flip the field.
Better or worse in 2017?
Georgia has a proven track record of running the ball well, although it must be mentioned that the success was under former coach Mark Richt and difference offensive coordinators. Smart and Chaney must show that they can orchestrate an imposing rush attack, but there’s no reason to believe that can’t be done.
For the Bulldogs to get back to running the ball well, they will need to have improvement along the offensive line, at the quarterback position and show greater creativity regarding play calling.
Chubb and Michel are one of the best tandems in college football, and they have a level of depth behind them that any coach would desire. There is no doubting the running backs that Georgia has on hand, and the improved health of Chubb and Michel should along be enough to help the running game take a step forward.
The Bulldogs will run the ball with much better results in 2017.