Whatever success Georgia realizes in Kirby Smart’s second season at the helm can be traced back to Dec. 15, when two junior tailbacks recommitted for one last go-round.
“Total elation,” was Smart’s description of the moment Nick Chubb informed him that he was coming back.
Chubb’s decision was the catalyst for roommate and best friend Sony Michel to stay in Athens as well. Leading linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy joined the party to return as seniors the same day.
“I think Nick was the first guy to inform me, and I think maybe his decision weighed a little bit on the other guys that were deciding,” Smart said. “I think he made it okay to do. He showed the confidence, not only in our coaching staff, in our total program, that he knows he’s going to have an opportunity to get better and grow.”
As the news trickled out online and via social media last December, the Bulldogs were abuzz with an enthusiasm that belied the 7-5 regular season that just ended.
“They’re coming back,” punter/quarterback Brice Ramsey – who later seesawed from transferring to returning himself – excitedly told tight end Jeb Blazevich in the dining hall that afternoon as the word spread.
Bigger even than signing one of the top recruiting classes in the nation a couple months later, the four junior leaders pivoted the conversation from a disappointing season to the promises ahead. When the media votes at the end of Southeastern Conference Media Days this week in Birmingham, Ala., Georgia is likely to be the choice to win the SEC East thanks in large measure to those four returning juniors led by Chubb and Michel.
“This is our chance to try to lead our team and lead them to something great,” Michel said Tuesday.
Smart took both running backs with him to Birmingham. They make a complementary set – the quiet, resilient Chubb and the chatty, slashing Michel – and their decision to stick together lifted the expectations.
“There’s a lot of balance to our relationship,” Chubb said. “He’s really outgoing and I’m more of a quiet guy. He speaks for me and I hold it down for the both of us.
“He does some things better than I do and I do some things better than he does. We just really balance each other out and it’s a great way to play. We had both been talking and it made it so much easier to decide to come back when we found out we both wanted to come back and play our last year together.”
When they both showed up in 2014 to supplement the incumbent tailback tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, few would have expected them to remain four years. But injuries and a diminished offensive line curtailed their rapid ascents and decreased their draft value despite their successful healthy returns last year.
As a set, they have the chance to lift each other’s earning power with a big 2017.
“Nick and Sony are a neat pair because they came in together,” Smart said of the stars he inherited. “They formed a bond. They came from different backgrounds. You know, one from down in Miami and one from Cedartown, a rural area in Georgia. They came to RBU – Running Back U – together. And I think that speaks volumes to the fact that these two guys have grown to love each other by living together and competing against each other and sharing carries.”
Georgia’s success this fall hinges on the ability to give them each the room they need for great things to happen. That’s the challenge for second-year quarterback Jacob Eason, who needs to elevate his efficiency in the passing game to create opportunities for the headliners in the backfield behind him. It’s a coordinated dance that is essential for the Bulldogs to improve from last season’s stagnant offense.
“Certainly happy to have those rushers back, but we have to create space for those guys and run the ball better, be more productive so we can open up the passing game,” Smart said. “Jacob has been a guy that has openly admitted he’s super happy to have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel coming back. We have other backs. And I hope Jacob can open up that part of the offense and be able to expand it and open some things for Nick and Sony. That’s one of the big things for them coming back, was to be able to open that offense up and let those guys have more space.”
That extra season is a blessing not only for Georgia’s immediate championship aspirations but the long-term stability of the program. Smart can’t afford a second season like the first as he builds faith in his system. And he didn’t want to accelerate the introduction of inexperienced backs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift. Depth establishes a stronger chain of succession that can extend deeper into the future with the arrival of more promising stars like five-star commitment Zamir White.
“It means the offense is going to be a lot better with two guys like that coming back,” said junior linebacker Roquan Smith. “It gives the guys behind them a chance to get better each and every day.”
Chubb and Michel give Georgia the best chance to be Georgia again this season.
“It’s perfect how it worked out,” Chubb said in December.
That will ultimately be judged this fall, but there’s no question Georgia’s forecast for meeting expectations was lifted on the day they chose to return.
“They embody what the SEC is about,” Smart said.