ATHENS -- Isaiah Crowell started wearing the rubber bands a couple of years ago, when the recruiting really started heating up, when he probably realized what his future held.
The two rubber bands adorn his right wrist. One stands for “the shine” as Crowell puts it or the praise he gets for his football abilities. The other is meant to remind him of his struggles.
“What I went through and what I made it through,” Crowell said.
It may seem that it only has been a charmed life for the Georgia tailback, who six games into his college career is already living up to the expectations that he would shine. He ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing, and his offensive coordinator says Crowell has a chance to be one of the best to ever play at Georgia.
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That’s the shine for that first rubber band. The struggles are for the other one. The other stuff. The stuff that happens off the field.
“I didn’t know it’d be this tiring,” Crowell said. “So much pressure is on you. I didn’t know that. But I expected everything else with football. I knew it was gonna be hard; I knew it was gonna be tough to practice. But outside of football, that’s what I’ve gotta get used to.”
Increasingly, he gets recognized wherever he goes. Crowell can be shy, so that’s not easy. He said school and other obligations have forced him to adjust.
On the plus side, he has started to get used to speaking to the media. And he’s learning to live with the various little injuries. First it was his ribs, then his wrist and most recently an ankle that bothered him at Tennessee.
“I’ve been sore after every game,” Crowell said. “But that’s how it is. That’s just how it’s going to be.”
Bryan McClendon, the Bulldogs’ running backs coach, has warned Crowell that other teams will be taking shots at him, trying to exploit those injuries. There is now a target on Crowell, who is on pace for 1,146 rushing yards in the regular season. But little injuries are also customary for a tailback in the SEC.
“You get hit on every play, whether you’re play-faking, whether you’re blocking, and then a lot of times when you have the ball in your hands it’s not just one guy hitting you,” McClendon said.
That’s a big reason Georgia coaches would like to keep Crowell’s workload around 20 to 25 carries per game. The 30-carry performance at Mississippi was an aberration.
But it’s also becoming apparent that Georgia can’t afford to keep Crowell off the field for long. He may be the team’s most valuable offensive player. For instance, when Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin was asked this week about game-planning for Aaron Murray, Georgia’s quarterback, Franklin answered, “We also think their running back is a special player, and that’s a big part of our focus.”
There are still some little things that Crowell has to improve on, according to Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. That may include pass blocking. But overall, Bobo is fairly unrestrained in his praise.
“For as much pressure, scrutiny that guy’s been under since he arrived on campus, dealing with a lot of people pulling and tugging at him, I think he’s responded well,” Bobo said. “He’s continued to mature and get better every week. He’s definitely made a difference in our offense.”
McClendon said Crowell has proven to be very coachable, willing to ask “all the right questions,” the assistant coach said. The freshman works at the small things that result in good runs.
At some level it’s not even about work. Crowell may be a freshman, but he has played running back since he was about 6 years old.
“You usually can’t teach a guy how to be one of those great ones; they’ve just got it in them,” Bobo said. “You see it all the time. He’ll be running to the sideline, and he’ll move his body a certain way, and a guy will just completely miss him. I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best to ever play here. He’s gotta continue to get better, where he could be a dominant player. He’s not there yet.”
Asked for his season goals, Crowell mentioned being named a freshman All-American. Four other freshmen rank have rushed for more yards so far: North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard (657 rushing yards), Akron’s Jawon Chisholm (575) and Connecticut’s Lyle McCombs (575).
But Crowell is doing it in what most agree is the nation’s toughest conference. And no matter what happens on that front, his career is off to a good start.
“I think I’ve proved a lot,” Crowell said. “I’ve probably made the fans happy. My family and all the coaches and the people around here. I think I just tried to do my best and I think I made everybody proud of me.”