After a season of injuries, suspensions and general frustration, the Georgia football team has started its spring practice with an air of stability at the running back position.
Even after finding out last Tuesday that Carlton Thomas would be leaving the program in search of more playing time elsewhere, head coach Mark Richt still liked what he saw at the position.
“We do have a good bunch of backs right now, no doubt about that,” Richt said. “Some of them are totally inexperienced. Keith [Marshall]’s getting some experience now, [Todd] Gurley will have no experience when he gets here, but there’s a really fine talent base. And then of course the guys that have been around — Ken Malcome and Richard [Samuel] and Isaiah [Crowell] — they’ve got a pretty good idea of what to do and got a little bit more experience under their belts ... They’re a talented bunch.”
After a season that saw him named SEC freshman of the year as well as a freshman All-SEC selection — while coming under criticism from a vocal portion of the Georgia fan base — Crowell began spring working with the first team offense.
The sophomore from Columbus said that while he takes great pride in playing with the first-team offense. He takes the practice field with, he wants to use the position for the good of the team.
“It’s a lot of pride, but I want to be the one to start off to help Keith and all the new guys out,” Crowell said. “That’s the reason that I was glad that I was the first one out.”
Despite missing some of the winter workouts with strained ligaments in his left ankle, Crowell has earned the praise of his coaches as he begins to come to terms with the responsibilities that come with being a five-star recruit.
The improvements made by the Bulldogs’ leading rusher from last season haven’t only been noticed by his coaches.
“He’s became a whole lot more responsible,” fullback Alex Ogletree said. “I just think he’s maturing more and just understanding what position he’s in and just knows he’s a role model to everybody and I think he’s really understanding that.”
Crowell said that he is pleased he has impressed his teammates, as improving his standing on the team was something he wanted to do before spring began.
“A lot of my teammates told me that I’ve been doing good. I’ve been trying to be a good teammate and be accountable and be able for my teammates to trust me, so that’s been the main thing my focus,” Crowell said. “I know there’s a lot of improvement I could have made and I tried my best to make that, and I think it went well and I’m going to keep giving it my all.”
While saying that his main goal was simply to be a good teammate and help Georgia to a championship, Crowell also said he had a “realistic” goal of making a run for the Heisman Trophy this fall.
In his pre-spring practice press conference, Richt acknowledged the progress Crowell made, but was more interested in talking about the growth of another one of his running backs.
Malcome, a redshirt sophomore, was the player that the Georgia head coach picked out for special praise after impressing during the Bulldogs resurrected, and challenging, mat drills.
Malcome said that while he originally struggled with the drills, the eventual outcome was worth the effort.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in sports, the hardest thing,” Malcome said. “I realize mat drills, they’re not trying to break you, they’re trying to see how tough you are and my first couple of times I was hurting, barely making it. But my last time I just had to do the best thing for-me just fight through it.”
And fight through it, Malcome did.
After achieving only Cs, Ds and Fs on the coaches grading scale Malcome achieved two As at the end of the drills, something he said proved how much he had grown over the course of the Bulldogs’ winter conditioning.
As with Crowell last season, the spotlight of Bulldog nation has fallen on incoming freshman Marshall.
Having enrolled in January, the four-star prospect from Raleigh, N.C., is experiencing his first practices with the Bulldogs.
Through the early parts of spring, Richt said it is difficult to get a gauge on the new arrivals because of the unrealistic nature of the practices.
Despite this, Marshall has already drawn praise from Richt and his teammates since he arrived in Athens.
“He’s got very good quickness, good speed, seems to have good running instincts,” Richt said. “Considering everybody else knows the system and had practiced under the system, I thought he did a pretty good job. I think that he did an awful lot of studying from the moment he got here until this point to be able to function like he did. He really had a pretty good working knowledge of what to do. He wasn’t just totally lost. I think as time goes on we’ll see even more of what he can do.”
Malcome has seen the early days of Marshall up close and said that despite a few freshman mistakes, he thinks Marshall has the potential to play a major role in the Bulldogs’ running attack during the 2012 season.
“I think he’s going to be pretty good. He’s just got to learn the players and just be confident,” Malcome said. “I talked to him [and said], ‘Today you’re a freshman. You’re going to mess up. Just don’t think about it, we all was freshmen one year, so just keep working hard. You’re going to get better.’”
Both Crowell and Malcome feel that they improved over their own freshman seasons, and along with rising senior Richard Samuel IV, the trio feels that the crop of backs that Georgia now has can be one of the standout groups not just in the SEC, but in the country.
“I think the running game is the most important thing to our offense,” Crowell said. “The running game helps out the play action and the pass and so I think our offense, we need the running game a lot.”
Malcome was a lot more frank in his assessment of the Bulldogs’ rushing attack.
“I think it’s going to be really important,” Malcome said. “Running back is the position that keeps the team going. [If] you [have] not got any running backs, you’re not going to win games. I feel like we got me, Isaiah and Keith and Todd [Gurley] coming in, [so we’re] ... probably the best running back field in the nation.”