(Updated 10 a.m. Thursday)
ATHENS — With Caleb King suspended for two games and Carlton Thomas still bothered by a hamstring injury, Georgia suddenly is in a precarious position at tailback.
Washaun Ealey, whose playing time has been limited the past two games because of his problem with fumbles, will start Saturday against Vanderbilt. “He’s going to be the guy this week,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
Ealey sees this as his chance to make amends for critical fumbles against South Carolina and Mississippi State.
“I’m pretty sure I lost the trust of most guys on the team,” Ealey said after practice Wednesday. “Hopefully I can go out there and gain their trust back this week.
“I know my team really needs me this game,” he added.
Georgia’s tailback situation behind Ealey remains in flux.
Thomas, who missed last week’s game, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. Freshman Ken Malcome, whom the coaches are considering playing for the first time, missed part of Tuesday’s practice with a shoulder stinger but returned Wednesday. Whether Malcome sheds his redshirt and plays Saturday could hinge on how Thomas does the next couple of days, coach Mark Richt said Wednesday night.
Asked earlier this week if Malcome has shown enough in practice to prove he’s ready to play, Bobo said: “We ain’t got nobody else. … We got one running back,” meaning Ealey.
Fullbacks Fred Munzenmaier and Zander Ogletree also have gotten work at tailback in practice this week, Richt said.
“We’re going to have to figure out a way,” Bobo said. “Guys are going to have to pick up the slack, and Washaun is going to have to be ready to go.”
King’s suspension is the latest hurdle for a tailback contingent that has had trouble getting on track this season.
“It’s been interesting, to say the least,” McClendon said.
Among suspensions (first Ealey’s, now King’s) and injuries (first King’s ankle, now Thomas’ hamstring) and crucial fumbles (two by Ealey, one by King), Georgia has not been able to get into any kind of rhythm at tailback in the first half of the season.
Ealey has started three games, King two (both of the wins) and Thomas one. Ealey has a team-leading 246 rushing yards, followed by King with 228. Ealey’s longest run of the season is 18 yards. As a team, Georgia is 10th in the SEC in rushing, averaging 136.8 yards per game.
McClendon said King was beginning to separate himself as the No. 1 tailback — before his early Monday arrest for failing to appear at a court date in connection with a speeding ticket. That arrest resulted in a two-game suspension from Richt.
Now, Ealey “has to go out there and do a good job,” McClendon said. “Not so much fill the void, but he has to go out there and fill the job, no matter what.”
Georgia’s defense is last in the SEC when it comes to stopping opponents on third down, allowing a first down 43.4 percent of the time.
“Third-and-long, especially, has been our Achilles heel,” Richt said. “We’ve had a bunch of teams in third-and-long, and we’ve had a bunch of teams get a first down. It’s just so frustrating.
“A lot of it has been QB runs. You feel like you have the right call, you have everybody covered and you are right there to get [the quarterback], and he breaks free. He either runs across the line of scrimmage like the Colorado quarterback [Tyler Hansen] did at least two or three times in the first drive of the game, or breaks free and throws a touchdown pass like the quarterback [Matt Simms] did for Tennessee last week.”
Richt said the Georgia defense has been much better against “third-and-medium” plays than against third-and-long.
“We just have got to continue to get our guys in position to make the plays,” Richt said, “and get them to make it.”
Asked who is happiest to have A.J. Green back in the lineup — the other receivers, the tight ends, the quarterback, the running backs — Bobo quickly answered: “Me.”