Minus Crowell, UGA Now Faces Challenges
By BJ Bennett
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Suddenly without their leading rusher from a season ago, the Georgia Bulldogs must now adjust on the fly.
In addition to leaving a black eye on the face of one of the SEC's proudest programs, Isaiah Crowell's recent dismissal leaves a glaring void in the offensive backfield of one of college football's expected national championship contenders. Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com had Georgia ranked fifth in his most recent pre-season poll, released in May. Holdovers Richard Samuel and Ken Malcome and newcomers Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley will be expected to replace the production of Crowell and Carlton Thomas, who transferred out in the spring. The team's top two rushers a year ago, Crowell and Thomas combined for over 1,200 yards on the ground at nearly five yards per carry. Crowell earned Freshman All-American honors.
Samuel is the Bulldogs' most experienced option. The senior has 196 career carries and is known as a sturdy between-the-tackles runner. A former linebacker who has been hit with injuries and role reversals throughout his career, he doesn't quite have the subtle nuances of the position down. He is a remarkable athlete, though, and has a 100-yard game on his career resume (Arkansas, 2009). That said, he hasn't rushed for over 60 yards in a single game in over two years and averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt last fall. Malcome, who has had concussion issues, saw action as a freshman late last season and finished the year with 42 carries. Former walk-on Brandon Harton may be an x-factor as he rushed for 98 yards against New Mexico and 101 yards against Kentucky in emergency spot starts. He is the team's leading returning rusher despite playing in just five games.
Marshall and Gurley both come to Athens from the state of North Carolina. Having enrolled early, Marshall may have a slight edge in the fight for early playing time, though both will be involved. Marshall chose Georgia over offers from, among others, Alabama, Florida, FSU, Miami and USC. He earned his number two position ranking from Rivals.com due largely to his speed and big-play ability. The more highly-touted of the two, Marshall's challenge is to avoid the mistakes made by his similarly-acclaimed positional predecessors. Gurley was ranked the nation's fifth best at his position, turning down the likes of Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. He stands a bit bigger at 6'1'', close to 200 pounds. Both were expected to contribute in year one; now they will be, at the very least, rotation regulars.
Crowell's absence won't come into play in a season-opening tilt with Buffalo. The following week at Missouri could offer a much different reality check. Considering this will be the Tigers' first-ever SEC game and the winner will nudge ahead in the early SEC East race, this game was already going to be a trying one. Without insight into the UGA offensive playbook, it's safe to assume that coordinator Mike Bobo would have wanted to use Crowell, and then Samuel in a complimentary role, to accomplish the following: take control of the game tempo, keep James Franklin and company on the sidelines, quiet the home crowd and physically attack the Missouri front seven. Even with Aaron Murray under center, it's unlikely that Georgia wants to get into a road shootout against a high-powered offensive team. Having a true freshman as one of the leading figures in the backfield, albeit an immensely-talented one, means the Bulldogs may have to alter their schematic approach some.
Flash back to the start of last season. Georgia opened the year with Boise State. The dismissal of veteran running backs Washaun Ealey and Caleb King forced the true freshman Crowell into the spotlight. He had some solid moments, 15 rushes for 60 yards, but hardly overwhelmed. It was clear the Bulldogs didn't have a back they trusted to carry the football 20+ times. Murray instead threw the football 29 times, a high total through the first six games of the year for him. He was sacked for a season-worst total of 33 yards lost. Bobo also utilized a trick play or two, with cornerback Brandon Boykin scoring on an 80-yard run. The end result was a game played at a Boise State-type pace. With no proven commodity to consistently run the football, Georgia was not able to take advantage of their much larger offensive line and thus control the flow of the game. The Broncos won the time of possession battle and went on to win the game by two touchdowns.
"We did try to go up tempo, we tried to run some no huddle. We wanted to try to spread it out a little bit more and get some of our guys out there in space. We didn't have an awful lot of success," explained UGA head coach Mark Richt after the loss to BSU.
While Samuel and Marshall are both talented options, the overall lack of proven depth could result in schematic similarities from the loss to the Broncos repeating themselves via circumstance in week two in Columbia, Missouri. A UGA slip-up there would very likely have unforgiving consequences on the team's goals for 2012. Crowell's departure undoubtedly leaves a void, questions that will have to be answered -- ready or not -- in the second game of the year. It's often said halftime adjustments win football games; Georgia's biggest alteration may now have to come in their preparation.
"We have a dedicated and committed group of men who are working hard to prepare for the coming season," Richt stated following Crowell's dismissal. "Our total focus will be directed toward the team and this effort."
Suddenly without their leading rusher from a season ago, the Bulldogs must now adjust on the fly. For the second consecutive year, off-season roster attrition has resulted in Georgia's depth chart at running back being completely reconstructed. In yet another critical September test, the offensive gameplan may once again have to be as well.