(UPDATED: 4:30 p.m.)
Just 10 months ago, Isaiah Crowell was the star of this strange and creepy obsession we call college football recruiting. He put on a Georgia hat. He raised a bulldog puppy up in the air with an ear-to-ear smile. He was all but designated the next savior of Athens, a running back of immense talents who would help turn around a sinking program and maybe help the Bulldogs to an SEC title, or three.
With his first season not yet complete, Crowell is something less than that, at least in terms of perceptions.
On Monday, the Associated Press designated Crowell as the SEC’s freshman of the year. He rushed for 847 yards and five touchdowns, despite playing in really only nine full games. He is, all baggage notwithstanding, one significant reason Georgia has won 10 games this season. But the honor was not universally embraced by Bulldog fans, many of whom referenced Crowell’s injuries, drug suspension and rumors of him being a discipline problem in comments on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. They believed wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was more deserving.
This all strangely dovetailed into Tuesday, when the Dogs landed the nation’s most sought-after running back (again), Keith Marshall of Raleigh, N.C. A segment of the same fan base that did everything short of bow at Crowell’s feet now is doing the same for Marshall, while hoping Crowell transfers or is thrown off campus.
What gets lost in all of this is that we’re talking about 18-year-old kids.
I’m not going to get into whether this is fair or unfair. Certainly, Crowell has maturity issues. He deserved criticism for the failed drug test. I’m among those who mocked him over the reported marijuana use during the season. He was suspended for one game and benched for the start of another (for undisclosed reasons). He was frequently injured — and never given the benefit of the doubt when it came to his pain threshold.
There were boos in the Georgia Dome when Crowell kept taking
himself out of the SEC championship game against LSU because of an ankle injury. Boos. That’s how far his star has fallen. If another player was trying to play through the pain of an injury, he would’ve been celebrated for trying to gut it out. But some now view Crowell as soft, a malingerer, a problem child.
The oversize, mutant stage of college recruiting creates this. Fans and media obsess over the decisions of teenagers. It’s non-stop pampering. There’s an automatic expectation that those who’ve seldom been subjected to criticism, let alone carry a major college football program, will be able to handle growing up in a spotlight. But it doesn’t always work that way.
During Crowell’s official visit to Georgia, coach Mark Richt went to the extent of lining up “players” in an offensive set, leaving the tailback spot vacant for him to see. (It was a brilliant recruiting device, except that it turned out to be a NCAA secondary violation.). But that same Richt was non-committal Monday about who his starter will be in the Outback Bowl.
There are a blur of unconfirmed rumors about Crowell. Nobody is certain if he even wants to come back. He certainly didn’t look like the happiest kid after the SEC game, and seemingly not just because Georgia lost.
I’m not deluded enough into thinking that college athletes should be shielded from criticism. But a little more perspective is in order. Crowell obviously has maturity and discipline issues, but he hasn’t exactly been an abject failure.
Are we so completely lost that we can’t even wait to see if a young man matures when he hits 19 or 20?
It’s possible Marshall will live up to expectations. He came off as a bright and level-headed young man at his announcement Tuesday, when he donned a red Georgia hat with a white “G” on it. He has a 4.29 grade point average. He plans to enroll at UGA in January.
But what if Marshall doesn’t live up to expectations? Georgia hasn’t had the best record when it comes to hyped running back recruits. Do we build up the next guy and lobby for Marshall’s exit? Is the SEC just too important to wait?
Some perspective, please.
By Jeff Schultz