Nick Chubb, Sony Michel returning to Georgia speaks well of Kirby Smart
Florida got an immediate bump in 2015 with first-year coach Jim McElwain. The Gators unexpectedly went on to win the East.
I was looking for something similar from Georgia this season with Kirby Smart, who returned to his alma mater after a long apprenticeship under Nick Saban. While I picked Tennessee to take the East, I envisioned the Bulldogs making a run at it.
A big reason why was the two-headed monster at running back — arguably the best in the country — in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb is a transcendent talent, even at a school like UGA with such rich history at the tailback position. Michel is good enough to start and be a 1,000-yard runner at any program in America.
However, the Dawgs slogged through a discouraging 7-5 campaign. Chubb and Michel both disappointed to some degree.
It would’ve been understandable had Chubb and Michel decided they’d had enough of collegiate life and declared early for the NFL Draft. Ball carriers in particular have an odometer that turns a bit faster than most football players.
So it was a pleasant surprise Thursday for Georgia fans when Chubb and Michel — along with pass rushers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter — announced that they were returning to Athens for their senior seasons. A lot of people, me included, just assumed that each would hire an agent and turn pro immediately after the Liberty Bowl.
As the Bulldogs prepare for TCU, which also failed to meet expectations at 6-6, Chubb didn’t want his future to become a distraction.
“My mind’s made up,” Chubb (below) told reporters, according to the August Chronicle. “I talked to Coach (Smart) and my family, and I no longer need to wait. Just go ahead and get it out there.”
After blowing everyone away with 32 carries for 222 yards and 2 touchdowns in the opener against North Carolina, less than a year removed from major knee surgery, Chubb looked ready to make a run at the Heisman Trophy.
Nevertheless, he never got anywhere near that number again — he cracked triple digits just three times in his next 11 games — and finished the regular-season schedule with a rather pedestrian 988 yards and 7 TDs. After averaging 7.1 yards per carry as a freshman and 8.1 as a sophomore, Chubb dipped to 4.8 as a junior.
“My mind was made up I was going to leave, but it just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I feel like if I would need to leave, I would feel it and I would be able to accept it and move on. Something kept telling me, ‘Nick, maybe not right now. Maybe not the right time.'”
While Chubb wasn’t a lock for Round 1 like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, he certainly would’ve heard his name called by Round 2 or 3.
But with him not running as well as he’d hoped in 2016 and UGA not meeting any of its team goals, Chubb clearly felt like there was unfinished business between the hedges. Obviously, the NFL isn’t going anywhere.
“It all came back to the kind of person I am,” he said, “to not just leave because things aren’t going your way but to fight through the problems and the adversity, and that’s what I feel I did.”
Michel, on the other hand, was in an entirely different situation. With the exception of the second half of 2015, when Chubb was sidelined due to injury, he’s never been the featured back for the Dawgs. Michel is a change-of-pace option and pass-catching weapon — at least a better one than Chubb — out of the backfield.
Still, there’s never been a whiff of animosity between the two. They’ve been each other’s biggest fan since they arrived on campus together.
“It sat on my heart for about two weeks strong,” Michel (above) said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make the decision that’s on your heart and not on your mind. You can’t go with everything else that’s going on around you. Sometimes people try to listen, and that’s when you make a decision with your mind. I felt like it was the right decision for me to stay. I have so much going for me here at the University of Georgia. I want to enjoy it. I want to finish strong here.”
Smart inherited both Chubb and Michel. He didn’t sign either one of them. Likewise, Chubb and Michel were force-fed Smart. They originally committed to ex-coach Mark Richt. All the more reason for the two to cut bait and bolt.
They didn’t do that, though. If you ask me, this is a great sign for Smart and the direction of the program. Not a lot went right for the Dawgs this season — playing poorly in the Cocktail Party, a shocking upset at home to Vanderbilt, losing the hate fest with Georgia Tech. The stage was set for draft-eligible juniors to walk.
And yet they stayed. They’re committed to the Dawgs. More important for Smart, they’re committed to him. That’s quite an accomplishment in one year.
“Walking off the field, I saw this Georgia Tech flag in the middle of our ‘G’ swinging back in forth,” Chubb said. “It kind of sparked something inside of me that it really hurt, and I want to change it. And, hopefully, I can.”
As a result, Smart’s depth chart will soon be an embarrassment of riches. Beyond Chubb and Michel, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield come back. D’Andre Swift and Toneil Carter, a pair of four-star recruits, remain committed for the class of 2017.
The real winner here, of course, is Smart. He took some heat from fans in Year 1 for leading such a lackluster campaign. Had Chubb and Michel departed — and Bellamy and Carter to a lesser extent — it could’ve been evidence that his message wasn’t getting through to players, particularly the ones he didn’t give a scholarship.
Needless to say, Chubb and Michel bleed red and black just as much as Smart does. NFL riches can wait. Rebuilding Georgia can’t.