One of the reasons Georgia is most everyone’s favorite to win the East in 2017 is the presence of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Both have had 1,000-yard seasons for the Bulldogs, Chubb in 2014 and 2016 and then Michel in 2015 after his partner in crime got hurt. Coming into this past season, they were considered the No. 1 tailback tandem in the conference.
However, Chubb and Michel struggled to some degree a year ago. Each of the last three seasons, they have rushed for somewhere between 1,908 and 1,970 yards as a duo. But their combined yards-per-carry average has continued to nosedive from 6.9 as freshmen to 6.1 as sophomores to 5.2 as juniors.
Coach Kirby Smart was thrilled to have them as seniors, though. A pair of pass-rushing linebackers, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, returned to UGA, as well.
“I think Nick was the first guy to inform me, and I think maybe his decision weighed a little bit on the other guys that were deciding,” Smart said last week at Media Days. “I think he made it okay to do. He showed the confidence not only in our coaching staff, in our total program, that he knows he’s going to have an opportunity to get better and grow. And he’s going to have that opportunity.
“I think Nick will tell you that he wasn’t 100 percent last year, and he certainly has improved that. So with his ability to move up in the draft and create value for himself, he wanted to come back.”
Chubb’s decision was more of a surprise than Michel’s since he had a second- or third-round grade for the NFL Draft. Michel was probably a fourth- or fifth-rounder at best. But it was Chubb (below) who started the domino effect for the Dawgs.
“I think that made it easier for Sony,” Smart said. “Those two guys have a mutual respect. They are very different personality-wise, but they are both very talented. I think when Nick came back, it made it easier for Sony to make that decision as well.”
Still, if there’s one position where having seniors doesn’t seem to matter much, it’s running back. Great ones tend to be great straight out of high school, like we saw with Chubb in 2014 after the terrific Todd Gurley got injured. More often than not, senior RBs remain in school because they aren’t good enough for the pros yet.
Only once this decade has the league’s leading rusher been a senior: Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne, who had to wait his turn behind Tre Mason, in 2014.
Last season, it was LSU sophomore Derrius Guice. The year before, it was Alabama junior Derrick Henry. In 2016, 11 players eclipsed 1,000 yards. Not one was a senior. In 2015, nine did it. Only Tra Carson of Texas A&M was a senior.
Running backs are in fashion again at the next level, as a total of five have been taken in Round 1 of the last three drafts. The two drafts before that, none were selected prior to Round 2. However, not since Boise State’s Doug Martin in 2012 has a senior ball carrier heard his name called in the first round.
History suggests that Chubb and Michel can improve their stock heading into the 2018 draft. Becoming a top pick isn’t likely, though.
What do Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon all have in common, aside from being the only first-round tailbacks in the last five drafts? They left school early.
The nature of the position is a big reason why, of course. The down-to-down beating they’re subjected to — particularly a between-the-tackles pounder like Chubb — leads to an odometer that churns faster than it does for a wide receiver or a defensive back. Neither Chubb nor Michel was fully healthy a year ago.
Are they still the SEC’s best one-two punch in the backfield coming into 2017? The numbers lead us to believe it’s Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson instead.
“Sony is the guy that can do it all,” Chubb said when asked about Michel (above). “He can catch the ball, run the ball, block. I can do that as well. He does some things better than I do, and I do some things better than he does. We just really balance each other out, and it’s a great way to play.
“We had both been talking, and it made it so much easier to decide to come back when we found out we both wanted to come back and play our last year together.”
Some asked why Chubb and Michel bothered to come back to Athens. It’s not like they have a hard time finding guys to carry the ball between the hedges. But unlike Fournette and Henry, they had some unfinished business on Saturday.
“I didn’t get too many people telling me I was crazy,” Michel said. “Georgia is a great place. I’m sure Dawgs fans know that it is never a wrong decision to stay to get your degree or wanting to stay for football reasons.”
From the true freshman growing pains of Jacob Eason at quarterback to the inconsistent hands of the receiving corps to the turnstile nature of the blocking up front, there was plenty of blame to go around offensively for the Dawgs in 2016. Chubb and Michel didn’t have the help around them necessary to be all they can be.
They weren’t completely innocent, though. Brian Herrien averaged 5.8 yards per carry as the No. 3 option with the same handicaps.
Healthier than they were a year ago and hopefully surrounded by a more capable supporting cast, there’s every reason to think Chubb and Michel will each be better in 2017. That being said, we’ve most likely seen the best of both in red and black already.
Lead photo credit: Cal Powell