If Chubb is unavailable, UGA RB Brendan Douglas a proven backup plan
Among the most important story lines heading into Georgia’s season opener against North Carolina is the status of star running back Nick Chubb.
Chubb, who had 745 yards and seven touchdowns through five games in 2015, has spent the past 10 months recovering from a gruesome knee injury he suffered on the first play from scrimmage against Tennessee last October. The junior spoke to reporters after Wednesday’s practice, and said his knee feels good, although it’s important to note that he has yet to be tackled.
While there appears to be a chance that Chubb will be ready for the opener, it’s unlikely he would be asked to carry a heavy load. If Kirby Smart and coaching staff decide to take it slow with their prized runner, however, Georgia could find itself in a tricky situation. Especially with Sony Michel, who topped 1,000 yards while filling in admirably for Chubb, dealing with a broken forearm.
Should the Bulldogs be without their top two backs, senior running back Brendan Douglas would be in a familiar situation.
Admired by the Georgia faithful, Douglas has been the blue-collar grinder in a unit dominated by stars like Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Chubb and Michel. He’s an unassuming worker who has come up big when Georgia has needed him most.
Douglas saw his first extended game action in 2013 when he filled in for an injured Gurley and Marshall in a 41-26 loss to Missouri. A freshman, Douglas carried a team-high 14 times for 70 yards and also led the Bulldogs with six receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown. It was the type of performance that earned him the respect of fans and teammates alike and set the tone for the rest of his career.
A year later, Douglas again played an important role. When Gurley was suspended just days before No. 13 Georgia traveled to face No. 23 Missouri, many feared his absence would doom a promising season.
Instead, Chubb enjoyed a breakout game, carrying an incredible 38 times for 143 yards and a touchdown. While the freshman was sensational, Douglas was crucial in keeping the offense alive when Chubb took the rare break. On 13 carries, he ran for 65 yards and a touchdown while averaging a strong five yards per attempt.
It was a critical point in the season, and Douglas once again proved that he was capable of taking advantage.
Now the senior may be in line to face his biggest test.
If Chubb and Michel are limited or unavailable, it will be Douglas leading the way for the Bulldogs’ backs. For a player who has earned a reputation for dependability in such moments, it would be a fitting start to his final season.
In North Carolina, Georgia faces an opponent that can be taken advantage of on the ground. Although Gene Chizik made strong improvements to the Tar Heels defense in his first season as defensive coordinator, it was largely due to better pass coverage. Last season, North Carolina ranked 122nd out of 128 teams in rush defense per game, surrendering an average of 247 yards to opposing runners.
There are a few areas on the field where Douglas will need to use his abilities as a runner — near the goal lines and around midfield.
It’s no secret that a strong run game becomes more important the closer a team gets to its own or the opponent’s goal line. Douglas has only recorded five carries for 18 yards from inside the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line, but it’s an area where the Tar Heels are susceptible defensively. In 2015, North Carolina surrendered an average of 7.9 yards per carry when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, including 21 carries over 10 yards.
When Georgia approaches the red zone, though, things could become a bit more difficult against the Tar Heels, who allowed only 3 yards per carry in those situations. Douglas, whose hard-nosed running style figures to work well near the goal line, averages 4 yards on each carry inside the 20.
The outcome of the game could very much depend on how easily the Bulldogs are able to run the ball between the 40-yard lines. In this area, a balanced attack means the difference between ending a drive with points or coming away empty-handed. It’s also the part of the field where Douglas and the Tar Heels are most evenly matched. For his career, Douglas averages 4.3 yards per carry on attempts near midfield. Similarly, North Carolina’s defense surrendered an average of 4.6 yards on each rush attempt in this area.
It’s true that Douglas’ performance would be important for Georgia should Chubb and Michel prove limited. Fortunately, he likely won’t be asked to do it all on his own. The Bulldogs have weapons on offense if they can be creative. Players like Terry Godwin, Isaiah McKenzie and Jeb Blazevich should help draw attention from the Tar Heels. All Douglas would need to do is keep North Carolina honest defensively and take advantage of any mistakes.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, if Douglas has to be the steadying presence for the Bulldogs on offense, it’s a role in which he should feel comfortable.
Among Georgia’s brightest stars, Douglas has developed a strong reputation of his own. He’s not the same dynamic playmaker as many of his backfield companions, but there are few players as capable of stepping up in a big game as Douglas.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.