Georgia's running backs molded by instability

semerson@macon.comNovember 23, 2011 

ATHENS -- Aaron Murray was asked Tuesday if he knew how many different tailbacks he had handed off to in less than two years as Georgia’s starting quarterback.

Murray thought for a moment and exhaled.

“Seven, eight. It’s been up there,” he said, hastening to add: “But like I said, all those guys work hard, so I don’t mind it at all, as long as they’re making plays, which I have been.”

The making plays part has indeed improved. But after a backfield overhaul in the offseason, Georgia is still having stability problems at tailback.

It leads to the obvious questions: What’s wrong at that position? Is it just a series of bad apples that happen to play the same position? Or has the team just cracked down at that spot?

“Everybody thinks the running backs (are) just being troublemakers. But it’s a lot more to it than people think,” said redshirt freshman Ken Malcome, who has been suspended for one game this season and at one point briefly quit the game.

“A lot of things go on that people just don’t know what they’re making it out to be. We’re not gonna let the people just say we’re troublemakers. We’re gonna try to prove them wrong.”

Leading rusher Isaiah Crowell has been suspended for one game, the first quarter of another game, and has been hobbled by injuries. The highly touted freshman has an ankle injury, but he is expected to play against Georgia Tech.

Second-leading rusher Carlton Thomas has been suspended for three different games. His status going forward has not been announced, although offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said Tuesday that Thomas will play this weekend.

The backfield’s two best citizens so far have been Richard Samuel and Brandon Harton. But Samuel has been hurt and is out until at least the SEC championship game, and Harton is a 5-foot-6 former walk-on.

This year’s events are a disappointment for Georgia, considering it hoped it turned a corner. Last year, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King alternated starts as each was suspended after being arrested. Ealey, who would have been a junior this season, transferred to Jacksonville State, while King, who would have been a senior, was declared academically ineligible.

Running backs coach Bryan McClendon was asked if all the issues had kept him up some nights.

“Definitely. But that’s my job,” said McClendon, who received a raise in the offseason from $90,000 to $200,000. “You’ve gotta make sure that you keep everything in perspective and know that you’re doing everything else that other people are doing.

“It does burn you up a little bit when guys don’t make those right decisions. No matter how small, how big they are, you’ve gotta make sure they’re making the right decisions and hold them accountable when they don’t. That’s kind of a tough thing when you’re trying to compete at this level, but it’s the right thing to do nonetheless.”

What McClendon, and no coach, can talk about because of NCAA rules is that the program is pursuing several more big-time tailbacks.

Keith Marshall, one of the nation’s top tailback recruits, is set to announce his decision Dec. 6. Recruiting experts say Georgia is the favorite for Marshall, who is an honor student.

The Bulldogs are also pursuing another high school senior tailback, Todd Gurley of Tarboro, N.C. And they already have a commitment from Derrick Henry, one of the top tailback recruits for the 2013 class.

These days, when most teams now use multiple backs, it might not be a reflection on Crowell that Georgia is continuing to pursue highly rated tailbacks. But given Crowell’s injuries and off-field troubles, it does seem notable.

Crowell is now on his fifth injury this year, although the ankle was the first one that shut him down for the rest of a game.

“This is a very physical game, this is a very physical position in a very physical league. So I can guarantee that this is something that he hasn’t dealt with before in high school,” McClendon said. “But it’s no different than a lot of other freshmen that come in and play in this league.”

As for the off-field problems, Malcome expressed confidence that they were over.

“I’m sure none of us will be suspended in the next couple years,” he said. “So that’s something people don’t have to worry about. We learned our lesson, Carlton learned it, I learned it, and Isaiah.”

Senior tight end Aron White put it another way.

“As far as I know, I haven’t seen any running backs since Washaun and Caleb left be reprimanded to the point where they had to go,” he said. “So as long as they’re here I’m going to assume whatever their transgressions were it was small, it was minor.”

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