5 things to know heading into 2019-2020 UGA football season
D’Andre Swift has a knack for flash. He’s the type of player who finds a specific touchdown run rolling on highlight reels for a few years.
Swift’s first two seasons as Georgia’s running back were saturated with swagger. Entering his junior season, his sleeveless, crop-top practice jersey displaying his added muscle bulk confirmed the inevitable.
Move over. Swift is the head honcho of the famed running back rotation. He knows it, too.
Swift recorded a 1,049-yard season with 10 touchdowns in his sophomore year. His prominent stature grew on a national stage with bursting runs to leave spectators in amazement.
“Anytime I get the ball in space,” said Swift, after head coach Kirby Smart called him “incredible” with possession of the football. “I look to make an explosive play.”
At the same time, something felt off. A groin injury — that required surgery in 2018 — limited his production and Swift didn’t return to full health until Georgia’s successful stretch in late fall.
He carried a 215-pound frame through those setbacks. But Swift looked leaner and fine tuned Friday during preseason practice. Even standing still with arms crossed, Swift made a three-pound weight loss in the offseason evident.
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt,” Swift said. “This is one of the best offseasons I’ve had — in the weight room, running and conditioning. I feel like I’m ready for the season.”
The difference is in Swift’s capability to increase workload. After offseason recovery last season, Swift exercised caution. He kept safety a priority and didn’t push too hard. A year has elapsed, and limits are non-existent with a clean bill of health.
Georgia’s run-first offensive approach consists of backfield mates that mirror the talents of Swift. No longer are the likes of Elijah Holyfield, Nick Chubb or Sony Michel blocking Swift from emerging as the eldest asset in Dell McGee’s position room.
Now, Swift assumes the leadership role and helps develop the likes of fellow junior Brian Herrien, sophomore James Cook, redshirt freshman Zamir White and true freshman Kenny McIntosh. His ultimate goal is to elevate Georgia’s running back stable to the success and collective fame it envisions. One with enough speed and flare to puzzle defenses.
“They bring explosiveness,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “These are guys where you can throw them the ball three yards in the backfield, and they can take it for seven (points). Anytime we have those guys in our arsenal, it is incredible and makes it fun to play with.”
Running back updates
Georgia’s eagerness lay in the addition of White. He entered the program ahead of last season with a formidable recruiting status. A dazzling high-school tape filled with long, physical highlight runs complemented it.
An ACL tear set him back upon arriving in Athens, but an ahead-of-schedule return allowed White to potentially suit up along with his teammates to open the season.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Another tear on a play in which White didn’t have the ball. A blow crushing enough to the point where Georgia head coach Kirby Smart fought emotion to break the news.
White, after fighting the unavoidable shock and disappointment, returned to rehabilitation with director of sports’ medicine Ron Courson. He returned to practice Friday with full clearance, and will get “thudded,” Smart said, once scrimmages begin.
A few moments before meeting with reporters, Swift had his most important meeting after running into White. He asked White if he was ready for a return, and the younger bruising back’s answer was prompt: “I can’t wait. It feels so good to be back.”
“Everybody should be excited for him,” Swift said. “We are excited to see him get back out there. I tried to give him pointers and keep his head held high, because he’s really self-motivated.”
Along with Swift, Cook gains traction while creating havoc in areas of space. His freshman campaign ended on a sour note by being sidelined with a foot injury. Cook is back at full health, but maintaining it is a point of concern for the Bulldogs’ staff.
If Cook stays healthy and adds mass onto his slender frame, the sophomore could be in store for a production jump. He recorded 373 all-purpose yards and received a heavy load with two touchdowns against UMass. Some unpolished qualities, however, are there.
“He’s got to learn the offense to the point where he’s comfortable being in the lineup at all positions,” Smart said. “He’s a much more mature individual and we’re excited to see what he can do.”
A year of experience gives Cook a richer knowledge of Georgia’s playbook. More wide-open opportunities could come his way, too, as Swift indicated that offensive coordinator James Coley has done things “a lot differently” in regard to pass-catching opportunities for running backs.
For a former high school track star in the Miami area, a chance for Cook to run could bring the sweetest satisfaction.
“We think (Cook is) one of our most explosive players,” Smart said.
Georgia’s rotation is rounded out by a pair of running backs who will see their fair share of carries, too.
Herrien continues his swing of momentum after showing versatility against Texas. McIntosh, as the baby among the group, still has to overcome minor freshman mistakes, like being in the wrong spot during practice. Once that’s checked off, the freshman hopes to validate the excitement from Smart that he showed from the day McIntosh was signed.
Georgia’s running back room has a new feel, but its expectations are no different. Swift is in the role of the “old guy” now, and mentoring his younger backfield mates.
He leads the pack and the others follow with qualities that make the Bulldogs’ offense tick. Explosiveness. Speed. Tiring physicality.
And maybe even a few highlights.
“We’re in for a show,” junior linebacker Monty Rice said.