MEMPHIS -- Even with his padded helmet on, Washaun Ealey had his head wrapped in a white sweatshirt Monday morning, when Georgia started practice in below-freezing weather. It made Ealey look like he was wearing a head scarf.
The caution was warranted, both for Ealey and his team. Thanks to recent events, Georgia badly needs Ealey to stay healthy for the Liberty Bowl. And the sophomore tailback badly needs this game for his future.
Caleb King, who started most of the time he was available this season, is not available on Friday, having been suspended for missing too many academic meetings. That mainly leaves it up to Ealey, whose own season has been off and on.
It started very much off, as Ealey was arrested on two traffic misdemeanors and subsequently suspended for Georgias season opener. When he returned, he had several critical fumbles, and was benched.
But the second half of the season was better for Ealey. He set a team record with five rushing touchdowns in one game, finished as the teams leading rusher and even had a nice moment off the field: Ealey and teammate Mike Gilliard helped a student bus driver who had crashed on an icy road.
I feel like this season couldve went a lot better, Ealey said. But Im not feeling bad about what happened. Im just gonna try and keep pushing forward. Im gonna try and keep getting better every day.
If Fridays story line sounds familiar -- King out, Ealey with a chance to shine -- thats because it is.
King was hit with a two-game suspension after his own traffic-related arrest, and also missed two games with a sprained ankle. Ealey still never quite grabbed a hold of the starting job, and as a result Georgia is known to be trying hard to recruit tailback Isaiah Crowell of Carver-Columbus.
Crowell, or freshman Ken Malcome, who redshirted this season, could see a lot of carries next year. Thats unless Ealey gives the Georgia coaches something to think about heading into the offseason.
Its definitely a big game for me, just knowing that Ive got two more years here, and I want to leave an impression on coaches that I can get the job done if I was the No. 1 guy, Ealey said.
The Bulldogs also have sophomore Carlton Thomas, who rushed for 272 yards and two touchdowns this year. Head coach Mark Richt said that Thomas will get some work in the bowl. But he acknowledged that Ealey will carry the load.
When the season started, Georgia hoped to have Ealey and King as a potent tandem. They talked of each rushing for 1,000 yards. Instead the Bulldogs will end up having had each available in only seven of their 13 games.
Its really something weve been dealing with all year, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. Thats why we kind of toyed around all year putting Ken Malcome out (on the field). But weve been able to survive. So hopefully we can survive with one more game only having two healthy backs going into it.
Bobo added that he was confident in both Ealey and Thomas, since they know the offense. But how well can they run the ball?
Georgia had a weaker-than-expected running game this season, ranking 10th in the SEC. While some blame was assigned to the offensive line, Ealey said the blame, however, should be played on him.
I definitely put it on myself, Ealey said. Just being the type of guy that I am, I try to look to excel over what people think about me. Basically I feel like this season has had a lot to do with our running game. I feel like the three running backs that have been playing, we couldve done a lot more to help the team.
But he gets one more chance.
Pretty sad that Caleb couldnt be here, Ealey said. But weve just gotta come out here and look at it as a business opportunity. Weve gotta come out and get the job done.