Bulldogs Beat

A look at the hidden benefit and challenges of Georgia’s running back depth

Dell McGee stood alongside his running backs with a football in hand. Each player snatched the ball from McGee’s grasp and ran through a PowerBlaster apparatus with a set of hanging dummies.

Georgia’s running backs coach gave pointers while leading the practice drill Tuesday. McGee intently gazed toward a long line of participants. Each of them approached it with a different style of burst. One with speed. Another who is shifty. Some power to finish it off.

They revved up for live drills and gave Bulldog defenders a challenge. One after the other. None the same.

Georgia prides itself on the depth. Fans see it in the games with a revolving door of backs running for gaudy totals. For those suiting up, it’s appreciated on those days when the fences are closed and blinded by black shades. When the only hint of practice is the sound of head coach Kirby Smart’s boisterous voice to a bystander jogging down Lumpkin Street.

That “RBU” moniker shines brightest when no one sees.

“Everyone is going against a good back at all times,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “Your defenders get to thud and play on good backs.”

Georgia run game coordinator and running backs coach Dell McGee instructs players during the Bulldogs’ session in Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. Tony Walsh Georgia Sports Communications

If Georgia only had one good running back, then its defenders might be scared to hit him during practice. But when Smart sees as many as six talented athletes, he can send a few of them to get work against the No. 1 defense.

“You never know what they’re going to do,” said linebacker Monty Rice, who might argue his own running backs at least equal those around the SEC. “There’s a stable of them.”

D’Andre Swift, the assumed Bulldogs’ lead running back, might shimmy his way past a line of defenders during one period. James Cook might follow and bolt past cornerback Eric Stokes — who is known for his speed — to make the defense feel foolish for a second. Then, Zamir White won’t hesitate to be aggressive and can be hard to tackle.

Georgia’s defense has seen nearly every look it can. That’s to prepare for every different type of running back they’ll face. At the same time, Georgia’s own offensive catalysts get to see a nationally-recognizable run defense (allowing 134 yards per game in 2018) on a daily basis.

On each side, there’s one mentality while working on the Woodruff Practice Fields.

“It’s time to be a grown man,” Stokes said.

Once the bright lights shine in front of 90,000 fans, that’s when preparation comes to life. Georgia rotates its stable of backs with confidence. Multiple players record rushing statistics, and two of them tally a near-equal number of carries. They run behind an offensive line that’s touted as one of the nation’s best.

An average of 239 yards per game last season led the SEC and few defenses had an answer. A different player may rotate, but Georgia gets a similar result. That’s where it can become a disadvantage — well, challenge might be a suitable term — for Georgia to handle.

They all want carries.

“It’s crazy,” offensive tackle Andrew Thomas said. “There are so many talented backs we have and all of them can run, catch and pick up protection.”

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Georgia tailback James Cook (4) during the Bulldogs’ session on the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Steven Colquitt Georgia Sports Communications

McGee runs Georgia’s running back recruiting efforts with persistence and ferocity. Georgia has a commitment from 2020 five-star Kendall Milton and could add five-star Zachary Evans to the haul. Those are the No. 1 and No. 4 running back recruits nationally, so you get the gist of the Bulldogs’ aggressiveness.

The same can be said for those currently on the roster. Swift has earned carries. Cook came from Miami as a heralded recruit with the sought-after weapon of speed. White was the No. 1 recruit in 2018. Senior Brian Herrien draws praise as the grizzled veteran with a blue-collar approach. Freshman Kenny McIntosh also wants to work his way into the mix.

“You guys want everybody to get 1,000 yards and 1,000 carries, but there aren’t enough balls to go around and do that,” Smart said. “I’m trying to keep them happy.”

Georgia had two 1,000-yard rushers in its 11-3 campaign, but there’s a younger look and feel this season. With Elijah Holyfield ending his college career early, McIntosh factors into the position room while Cook gets a first legitimate crack at being a factor. Georgia knows statistical depth is an important element toward offensive success, especially for a team that carries its flag on wearing down defenses.

But the Bulldogs also won’t harp on a certain player racking up yardage for the sake of numbers. They’ll share the load around, because there’s only one football. Those who don’t will likely see special teams’ snaps, because Georgia takes a wholesale, yet aggressive approach to that unit.

That all reverts back to it being Georgia’s luxury. Their playing time might depend on workload, rotation or flow of the game. Regardless of who takes the snap, the result could be the same.

“I love all of our running backs. We have every type of running back there is to have,” offensive guard Solomon Kindley said. “That makes you look good on film while blocking. They can go 60 (yards) and make five people miss.”

So, when McGee gazes toward his lengthy line of running backs, he might let out a smirk on occasion. Because the birth of Georgia’s “RBU” is built by a number of running backs who provide similar potential.

Long gone are the days of a lone workhorse runner.

“The game isn’t built like it used to be,” Smart said. “The people hitting these guys are bigger, faster and stronger. You do what you have to do to win.”

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