ATHENS -- It was quite the day to be a freshman skill player from American Heritage School.
Those awaiting a stats-filled, Heisman-boosting performance from Todd Gurley on Saturday were greeted with something much different. After Gurley’s four carries on the first four plays of the game, Sony Michel -- the freshman out of American Heritage in Plantation, Florida -- took back-to-back handoffs and punched in a 6-yard touchdown run. The score proved to be all the Bulldogs needed on the way to the team’s 66-0 win over Troy.
But, as the score might indicate, it was far from the end of an impressive outing for Georgia’s freshman running back.
“We’ve seen Sony enough in practice, and obviously in high school, to know he’s a pretty special talent. He showed some of the things he can do (Saturday),” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “There was a lot of space for runners. The line gave him space to do his thing, but he’s definitely talented.”
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He ended up carrying the ball 10 times for 155 yards with three touchdowns, essentially showing coaches he was playing well enough to give Gurley the final three quarters off.
In Gurley’s absence, Michel gave a potential glimpse into some of his own Gurley-like tendencies.
With three minutes to play in the first quarter, Michel took a handoff through a huge whole and marched 75 yards before getting caught.
“It all started with the offensive line. Great job blocking their assignments. It opened a wide-open hole, and I seen it. I just tried to run for my life,” Michel said. “Ya know, I thought I made it, but I kinda looked back. He was determined to catch me. I tried pushing him, but it didn’t happen.”
He capped it off with an 8-yard touchdown on the following play.
But Saturday wasn’t the first time Michel had the opportunity shown his full potential. With a respectable amount of touches against Clemson and South Carolina, he’d gotten his chance to contribute.
For high school teammate Isaiah McKenzie, however, the game against Troy was a chance to show that the hype around his special teams talent isn’t just speculation.
Already up 24 points, McKenzie fielded a rugby-style punt off the bounce. He proceeded to run it back 52 yards for his first-career punt return touchdown (and given the sideline-to-sideline route he took, he travelled much further than 52 yards). Onlookers finally got a chance to see why he’d been labeled as “the Human Joystick” by high school teammates.
“I usually don’t catch them off the bounce. But, once I took it off the bounce, I just had to do what I do,” McKenzie said. “I love returning the ball. If I went to any college, I’d want to go be the best at it. Luckily, I chose Georgia. They gave me the spot (Saturday).”
Michel wasn’t surprised as he watched his high school teammate prance in for his first collegiate score. After the game, he was short and clear about McKenzie’s performance going forward.
“Expect to see more now that he’s comfortable,” Michel said. “That’s all I want to say.”
Despite their early production, Georgia coaches continued to try and get Michel and McKenzie involved. On the first possession of the second half, the Bulldogs ran the wildcat formation with Michel at quarterback and McKenzie as the “speed guy,” as Richt called him.
In the new-look offense, the two combined for 60 yards on the first three plays of the half, with McKenzie’s 49-yard scamper on first down highlighting the drive. Michel and McKenzie hadn’t run anything like that together at American Heritage, but they hope to see it more as the season progresses.
“I’m not too sure (if we’ll see it again), but I hope so.”
Michel and McKenzie aren’t strangers to the explosiveness they put on display Saturday.
Just ask Marshall Morgan.
Morgan spent his senior year of high school with the tandem at American Heritage. Before even transferring from nearby Archbishop McCarthy, however, Morgan had heard the hype surrounding Michel, who had started making a name for himself before entering high school.
“When I was a Archbishop McCarthy, I heard that Sony was this phenom,” Morgan said. “He was setting all these records in eighth grade.”
But in a high school jamboree, Michel tore his ACL and Morgan “didn’t get the chance to see Sony shine.”
But he did get a chance to enjoy McKenzie’s full sophomore season. His knack for making big plays in the special teams game was always there.
“I was there for a full year of Isaiah,” Morgan said, “and he’s always doing crazy stuff to get out of tackles like he did (Saturday) on that punt return.”
Morgan admitted he hasn’t returned to his high school since he left, but is “sure there’s Georgia everywhere” with the way the freshman duo has exploded to start the year. Nonetheless, Morgan -- who had a field goal and nine extra points (12 points) -- was thrilled to see his high school teammates combine to have such an eye-opening game.
“We were talking about it earlier, but I think all the Heritage guys had six points or more,” Morgan said.