ATHENS — Caleb King reclined in a chair after Georgia’s first day of practice this week with a broad grin on his face. He had been through three grueling hours of workouts under a scorching sun, but he was ready for more.
“I’m honestly not tired,” he said. “I could go out for another practice.”
It’s hard for King not to be energized by the opportunity at hand, and while Georgia was less than 24 hours into its fall practices, the competition was already intense.
No depth-chart battle will be watched more closely this fall than the fight for the starting tailback job, and while King is the most veteran of the five contenders, he’s taking nothing for granted.
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“I see him hustling,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I’ve not seen one loaf in that guy, and he’s had a good energy level at every practice.” King hasn’t had much choice. While the winner of the tailback derby may not even be decided by the first game, he knows he could be eliminated from contention at any time.
For the coaches, it’s a good problem to have — five talented tailbacks, all with an eye on the starting job. Still, keeping tabs on five players and ensuring they each get a fair shot at proving their mettle is no easy task.
“You have to make that decision about how many playmakers you have at that position,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “Can you afford to rep four? Can you get four the ball in the kind of stuff you’re doing? I’d say repping four or five is tough.”
For the time being, however, that’s exactly what Georgia’s coaching staff will do.
King and redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas were the only two tailbacks to see action this spring, and they didn’t separate themselves on the depth chart.
Sophomore Richard Samuel, who split carries with King in reserve duty last season, missed the spring following wrist surgery, but is back to full strength now.
Dontavius Jackson managed to see action in the G-Day game, but he has spent much of the past year rehabbing injuries. Freshman Washaun Ealey just arrived on campus in June, but he has already made an impression.
“He’s going to be a tough back,” Thomas said of Ealey. “He runs well, he’s picking up the plays pretty fast and working hard.”
The fierce competition has all five running backs on their toes, knowing a slight slip-up could be the difference between being first and fifth on the depth chart.
More importantly, while Richt said Georgia will run the ball early and often this season, the task of replacing one of the Bulldogs’ all-time best running backs won’t be simple no matter who lands the job. Knowshon Moreno set the bar high, and Richt has no intention of letting his replacement fall short of that standard.
“I don’t want anybody in the game that doesn’t know what to do,” Richt said. “I don’t want anybody in the game who can’t protect the passer. I don’t want anybody in the game who won’t protect the football. So those guys are working hard to know what to do and understand all phases of their responsibility, and that gives them the chance to get out there on the field on game day and show they deserve the most reps.”
Of course, there’s a good chance the winner of the job won’t be just one player.
Richt said he expects the Bulldogs to employ a tailback-by-committee, at least early in the season, although he admits he would be happy if someone proved him wrong.
Even Moreno waited his turn, however. It took nearly two months into his redshirt freshman season before he landed the starting job, and Thomas said he thinks there’s a good chance that a different tailback could be the starter nearly every week in September.
“It is tough to get a good look at all of us because we share a lot of reps, but everybody brings something to the table,” Thomas said. “I feel like whoever performs the best, the coaches are going to have to make a pick, and any pick will be the right one.”
That includes Ealey, who is clearly at the back of the pack in terms of experience, but could easily come from behind to claim the job.
The freshman from Stillmore ran for 41 touchdowns and nearly 2,300 yards as a senior at Emanuel County Institute, and he has hit the ground running at Georgia knowing that he may not have to wait for his chance to make an impact on Saturdays.
“It’s a great feeling, and I’ve just been working hard, competing with the other guys, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to play this year,” Ealey said.
Whether they’ve been at Georgia for two years or two months, the opportunity is there for all five tailbacks, and a final solution may not come for quite some time. But for all the suspense surrounding Georgia’s tailbacks, the expectations they all face won’t be a mystery.
“We are going to run the football, and we’re going to run it a certain way,” Richt said. “Whoever is in there needs to perform well. If three guys getting 10 reps is better than one guy getting 25 and another getting five, that’s what we’ll do.”