This is a story about a star running back at Georgia, which means that it is also, on some intrinsic level, a story about Herschel Walker. It’s impossible to avoid: In his three years, Walker so thoroughly embodied the ideal college workhorse that in the three-plus decades since his last carry in a red-and-black uniform, his shadow over the position has only grown. At some point, possibly before he even left campus, that shadow became a permanent feature of the landscape, looming over aspiring recruits and proven commodities alike: The best of the post-Walker tailbacks in Athens include two consensus All-Americans,1 six first-round draft picks,2 and a future NFL MVP, all of whom register in the imagination as mere footnotes by comparison. No broad-shouldered, blue-chip prospect has ever been touted as The Next Rodney Hampton. No fan in the cheap seats has ever been moved by a great run to exclaim, “That kid looks like Tim Worley out there!” No TV producer has ever booked Garrison Hearst or Knowshon Moreno to grant his blessing to the latest heir apparent.
Worley, Hearst, Rodney Hampton (1990), Robert Edwards (1998), Knowshon Moreno (2009), and Todd Gurley (2015).
So the bar for what qualifies as a star running back at Georgia is relative, to put it mildly. And before we get around to parsing the bona fides of the current headliner, sophomore Nick Chubb, it has to be said that exultant expectations for UGA rushers over the past few years have tended to produce a lot of false prophets.
Consider the Bulldogs’ leading rushers since 2009, all of whom initially exhibited great promise, but none of whom enjoyed a satisfying ending. Washaun Ealey, the team’s leading rusher in 2009 and 2010, was suspended in early 2011 and subsequently transferred. Caleb King, perhaps the first “Next Herschel?” candidate of the YouTube era, was ruled academically ineligible after two years of splitting carries with Ealey. Isaiah Crowell, the most coveted back in the 2011 recruiting class, was voted SEC Freshman of the Year that fall, then booted from the team the following summer. Even Todd Gurley, a legitimately Walker-esque specimen who might have been the most unstoppable player in the nation in 2014, was railroaded by a midseason NCAA suspension, then saw his college career cut short by a torn ACL in his first game back; for all the (well-deserved) awe his talent inspired, Gurley ultimately logged too few carries to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark in either of his final two seasons.3 Meanwhile, his one-time running mate, Keith Marshall, who supplied the only slightly less heralded half of the “Gurshall” tandem when both were feted as freshman phenoms in 2012, has been a nonentity the past two years because of a succession of injuries.
To be fair, in addition to his rushing totals, Gurley tacked on more than 1,000 career yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver and return man.
Call it a coincidence, call it a curse: Either way, that’s an astonishing amount of potential at one position that, even when it burned brightly for a while, ultimately failed to come to its full fruition. Given the prevailing attitude toward Georgia lately as a perennial underachiever among SEC heavies — this year marks a decade since the Bulldogs’ last conference title, a span that has seen SEC rivals Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Florida claim seven national championships between them — it might also serve as a microcosm for the trajectory of Mark Richt’s program as a whole.
Which brings us to Chubb, who is (bless his heart) not just the newest model off the assembly line of hyped UGA backs, but arguably better positioned than any of his ill-fated predecessors to make good on that promise over the course of a full three- or four-year college career. He has the pedigree, having arrived last summer with five-star billing in one of the most loaded running back classes in recent memory. He has the production, having already matched Hearst for the most rushing yards in a single season (1,547) by any Georgia player who isn’t Walker, and he did it despite playing sparsely in the first five games while still serving as Gurley’s backup; extrapolated over a 13-game schedule, Chubb’s output in the final eight games (163 yards per game on 7.0 per carry) would amount to well over 2,100 yards over a full season, enough to surpass Walker’s SEC record of 1,891 yards in 1981 with room to spare.4 Chubb’s biggest games (202 yards against Arkansas, 266 against Louisville) both came at the expense of a top-20 run defense according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rating. He has the respect of opposing coaches, who made him a first-team All-SEC pick as a true freshman. He has prototypical size (5-foot-10, 220 pounds), breakaway speed (12 runs covering at least 30 yards, most in the SEC), and a hard-charging running style that allows him to barrel through and bounce off would-be tacklers like a ram running downhill. This year, he’ll also have the benefit of running behind four returning starters on the offensive line who have combined for 78 career starts.
Of course, Walker posted his record total in just 11 games; bowl stats weren’t officially counted until the turn of the century.
Forgive Georgia fans if, at this point, they instinctively find themselves bracing for the other shoe to drop. But so far with Chubb, there’s nothing not to like: He was durable as a freshman, produced in every game after cracking the starting rotation, and has shown no inclination toward the kind of extracurricular habits that sunk Ealey and Crowell. “The thing about Nick that I like is he’s a very humble kid,” Richt says. “Even going through the recruiting process, it wasn’t a big dog-and-pony show. He committed, he was solid, he didn’t take any visits anywhere else. He didn’t have any drama added to it. That’s just how he likes to go about his business.”
In fact, assuming he stays healthy, the most obvious barrier to Chubb’s ascension into the VIP section of great Georgia backs will have nothing to do with his own limitations — he exhibited virtually none last year aside from a pair of lost fumbles in losses to Florida and Georgia Tech, the latter coming as he was attempting to punch the ball across the goal line — and everything to do with (a) How large of a role he’ll continue to play in the Bulldogs’ ground game, and (b) How far the ground game as a whole is able to carry the offense in lieu of a dynamic passing attack.
On the first front, although Chubb is obviously the most proven back on hand, the workload he carried over the second half of 2014 may be difficult to sustain with the presence of a healthy Marshall and Sony Michel in the same rotation. Marshall, who took a medical redshirt last year, is reportedly as healthy entering preseason camp as he’s been since he arrived on campus three years ago, when he briefly looked like the next big thing; Michel, who actually boasted slightly higher marks from recruitniks than Chubb, expects to be full speed after being slowed by shoulder and ankle injuries as a true freshman. And it’s no secret that, given the option, Richt has always preferred to spread the wealth:
There are some impressive names on that list, but none of them earned enough touches to mount the kind of serious Heisman campaign many are projecting for Chubb;5 the only one to shoulder as many as 20 carries per game in a season was Gurley, in 2014, and that was only over roughly half of that season. Even when their workhorse was available, the UGA coaches’ reluctance to put too much of the offense on Gurley’s shoulders was at times maddening to fans, and Chubb’s heavy workload after Gurley left the lineup was often a matter of sheer necessity.
The latest odds from the gambling site Bovada list Chubb as a 9/1 shot to win the Heisman, second among running backs (behind Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott) and third overall.
“I don’t think it’s wise to give anybody the ball 35 times a game, especially in our league,” Richt said, nodding to a barrier Chubb exceeded only once last year (38 carries against Missouri) but with which he also flirted in those 200-yard efforts against Arkansas (30 carries) and Louisville (33). “There were times when we did that with Chubb last year, but a lot of that had to do with injuries and the suspension [to Gurley]. I think it’s important to spread it out a little bit and not wear one guy down into a nub. That’s one reason great backs tend to want to be around other great backs.”
That may be the case, but even if Chubb and his high-ceiling cohorts are all they’re cracked up to be, the broader question still remains: In an era of efficient, up-tempo offenses and rapidly accelerating scoreboards, is it still possible for a great back, or a group of great backs, to serve as the centerpiece for a championship? On the one hand, college football is not yet “a passing league” in the sense that the NFL is: Although college offenses throw more often than in the past, they still tend to run more than they throw, and ground games in general are as productive as ever. Unlike in the pros, where individual backs have been steadily devalued as short-lived, situational cogs, the every-down workhorse remains a prized commodity in the college game. Still, it’s also been clear for a while that the days of college offenses hitching their wagons to a transcendent talent like Walker or Gurley or Chubb and riding him to a title are long gone unless that type of back is accompanied by a quarterback who can generate some semblance of balance.
Last year, armed with arguably the two best running backs in the SEC, Georgia was one of the most run-oriented offenses in the league and the most productive in terms of both rushing yards per game (257.9) and per carry (6.0). But opposing defenses never had much reason to fear senior quarterback Hutson Mason, a first-year starter, or any of his receivers,6 and the final result was an invitation to the Belk Bowl. This year, with a new, yet-to-be determined starter behind center and no proven targets behind the oft-injured Malcolm Mitchell, the inclination to lean more heavily on the loaded backfield and keep the quarterback out of trouble is likely to be even greater. Regardless of the final numbers, if under those circumstances Chubb is able to uphold his end of the bargain as the engine of a sustained title run, his place in the most exalted tier of Bulldog greats will be secure.
Only one UGA wideout recorded a 100-yard receiving game in 2014, with Chris Conley accounting for 128 yards against Arkansas.