May 10, 2011
Now that his impending transfer is official, Georgia fans are justified in lamenting the wasted potential of running back Washaun Ealey, whose two-year turn as the Bulldogs' feature back turned out to be equal parts brilliant and dumb. But the writing was on the wall months ago, and Ealey's exit only makes it that much clearer that the UGA running game is going to be in the puppy-hoisting hands of incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell, probably by opening night.
The first question now becomes not whether Crowell can win the job (though there is some sentiment for fifth-year senior Caleb King), but whether he can match the instant success of last year's five-star game-changers, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Auburn's Michael Dyer. The second question is, coming off its first losing season in more than a decade and possibly fighting for its head coach's career, how much Georgia really need that kind of impact?
Based on previous returns under Mark Richt, maybe not that much. At least, not necessarily: As underwhelming as the running game has often seemed with Ealey and King on the job the past two seasons — easily the worst two seasons of Richt's decade-long tenure at 8-5 and 6-7, respectively — their production was largely indistinguishable from the backfields on Richt's best teams, which also employed the committee approach. Since 2001, Georgia has produced exactly one first-team All-SEC running back, Knowshon Moreno in 2007 and 2008. The only other 1,000-yard rusher, Musa Smith, got there by carrying a full 21-carry-per-game load in 2002, when UGA finished 67th nationally as a team and ninth in the SEC in rushing offense, on an anemic 3.6 per carry.
But the '02 team finished 13-1 with an SEC championship, the first of four straight top-10 finishes through Richt's second conference title in 2005. But those teams all relied on running back by committee, and not to any great effect: Georgia was 74th nationally (10th in the SEC) in rushing in 2003, and 57th (9th in the SEC) in 2004. The 2005 team fared better (43rd nationally, 3rd in the SEC) only thanks to the contributions of athletic quarterback D.J. Shockley, the only starting QB under Richt who can qualify as a regular ball carrier. (Current starter Aaron Murray was credited with more carries last year, but that was largely because he was sacked much more often than any of his predecessors.)
In other words, with the exception of Moreno's brief supernova turn, the running game as a whole has remained consistent — that is, consistently meh — and hasn't demonstrably slipped relative to the teams that strung together four straight top-10 finished over the first half of the decade. In the big picture, neither the solo stars (Smith, Moreno) nor the promising collectives ever amounted to better than "pretty good," which is exactly what Ealey and King have offered the past two seasons.
What those teams did have that their predecessors have not is a genuinely rocking defense that made a mediocre running game look like a lot less of a burden. The Bulldogs finished in the top 15 nationally in both scoring and total defense three years in a row under coordinator Brian Van Gorder from 2002-04, and in the top 20 on both counts under successor Willie Martinez from 2005-07. Surprise: Those six seasons produced five outright or shared division titles, five top-10 finishes and two SEC championships.
The three seasons hence: With virtually identical numbers from the offense —scoring, yardage and pass efficiency averages over 2008-10 are slightly better than the averages from 2002-07 — the defense's steady descent into the bottom half of the conference has left Richt and the fan base alike grasping for a spark that even the awe-inspiring A.J. Green wasn't able to give them the last two years. Crowell's advance hype suggests he could be that guy, as the feature back or splitting time with King as part of a balanced offense. But the record will only come around when the defense stops running in place.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.