ATHENS – Notwithstanding all of the words that have been spewed or written about Isaiah Crowell – some factual, some imagined by the ScreaminDawg39s on message boards — since he was summarily dismissed from Georgia, one thing is undeniable:
He was good. Really good.
It’s easy to forget that. Many would rather talk about Crowell’s perceived lack of dedication, or his immaturity, or that he was soft. (It’s rare that even Vince Dooley calls you out.) Let’s assume all that were true. What does it say that Crowell still ran for 850 yards and five touchdowns in little more than 10 full games and was named the SEC’s freshman of the year?
It follows that when Georgia opened practice Thursday, there should’ve been no reason to celebrate Crowell’s absence. He left a void. If the Bulldogs don’t lack talent at running back, they at least lack certainty at the position and they may lack greatness.
Georgia is favored to win the SEC East Division largely because of its defense and quarterback Aaron Murray. But its chances of winning the conference championship and competing for a national title hinge on two things: 1) The offensive line, which was an issue even before Thursday’s news that projected starting right tackle Kolton Houston remains ineligible after testing positive for a banned substance from 2010; 2) A running back finding room to run even when there’s little or no room there.
Great running backs can hide the deficiencies of an offensive line, just as a great line can make a running back look better than he really is.
The Dogs were average up front last year. They have only two starters back. Nobody is getting ready to scream, “Hogs!”
“One of our biggest challenges this camp is to put together our starting five,” coach Mark Richt said Thursday.
Those generally aren’t comforting words four weeks before a season opener.
Nor should anybody feel good about the term “running back by committee.” Yes, as Richt pointed out, it worked for LSU last season. But LSU linemen look like transfers from nearby meat freezers.
Crowell was dismissed after a felony gun arrest and transferred to Alabama State. Last year’s No. 2 tailback Carlton Thomas (suspended three times) left the program with an intent to transfer.
The year before, troubled starting back Washaun Ealey was granted his release (Richt then: “We both have come to the conclusion that a transfer to another institution would be in his best interest.”) and Caleb King (multiple suspensions) was ruled academically ineligible and left.
So this makes two consecutive years that Georgia has lost its two most productive tailbacks from the season before for reasons other than the NFL, or graduating with honors.
Richt hopes freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley can have an impact early. Maybe senior Richard Samuel and sophomore Ken Malcome also can contribute. But understand: Running back by committee shouldn’t be celebrated, any more than platooning quarterbacks. If one guy was considered exceptional, he would start.
Samuel, who may wind up at fullback, acknowledged: “Isaiah is a real talent. It’s difficult not having somebody of that ability on the field. But Keith and Todd bring something different as far as a running style. … It’s a slight concern. But we have faith in those young guys.”
Richt said he is counting on not only the line coming together but his quarterback checking into and out of the right play and formation. As for Crowell, the coach is doing his best to minimize the perception that the player’s loss will have a significant impact.
“You know what? These guys are pretty talented, too,” he said. “And there’s a lot of talented running backs. Just look across America.”
Georgia just needs one to become a difference maker. But even with Crowell’s baggage, understand that he was better than most.
By Jeff Schultz