ATHENS, Ga. — The mourning period for fallen teammates expires quickly in college football, with the acceptance of fresh reserves the only healthy option for moving forward.
The quality of its replacements, however, has made it a little easier for the Georgia Bulldogs to embrace.
As the carnage mounted against Tennessee on Saturday, freshman reserve tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas more than fulfilled their emergency obligations in helping the Bulldogs escape Knoxville, Tenn., with a 34-31 overtime victory. Now they are prepared to be the first option as the No. 7 Bulldogs try to keep their championship hopes alive against No. 25 Missouri on Saturday between the hedges.
Where Georgia fans might justifiably have concerns, Georgia’s players don’t share them.
“They’ve made plays for us out there on the field, so they’ve definitely earned my trust and the team’s trust,” said quarterback Aaron Murray of the true freshman pair that has to replace the power tandem of Todd Gurley (doubtful, sprained ankle) and Keith Marshall (out for the season, torn knee).
Green and Douglas proved their mettle on Saturday under the most hostile conditions any college player could ever face. Green stepped into the primary role when Marshall went down with a knee injury in the first quarter, rushing 17 times for 129 yards. Douglas, the late signee from Aquinas, rushed 10 times for 25 yards, including his first career touchdown on a 3-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Even bigger was Douglas’ 32-yard catch-and-run to the Volunteer 13 on third-and-6 in the desperate final-minute drive that forced overtime.
“In retrospect we look back and think, ‘Wow, that guy’s a freshman,’” said senior receiver Chris Conley of the clutch plays made by both backs. “But in the game we don’t look at them as freshman. They’re starters, they’re playmakers and that’s the reason they’re here at Georgia. We don’t give them any excuses and when they make a big play we don’t blow it out of proportion.”
While you wouldn’t expect Georgia’s coaches and players to say anything different about teammates they are forced to rely upon, Green and Douglas have earned such peer confidence beyond a few big plays under pressure. They’ve been fostering that kind of faith every day in practice since July.
“It’s a lot easier for me to say yes because I’ve seen these guys practice every day and seen the kind of talent that they have and athleticism that they have but also the work ethic,” Conley said. “Football is a sport where the amount you get better equates to how hard you work. The fact these guys have these great work ethics and we’ve seen them make a couple plays on Saturday makes me believe that the sky’s the limit for them. I do trust them with this offense.”
Head coach Mark Richt echoed those sentiments.
“When you watch them practice enough, we see things that the rest of the fans don’t get to see,” Richt said. “We see guys running the ball with power or guys that have a good vision. We see guys that are learning how to pass protect at a faster rate than most freshman tailbacks do. We see guys that have secured the ball well at this point, so when you get them into the game, unless their nerves get to them, they’re probably going to perform about like they did in practice. We’ve had good confidence in them.”
Richt didn’t sound as confident that Gurley would be ready to return Saturday from the ankle sprain he suffered against LSU. “We’re not counting him out, but we have to prepare as if he won’t play,” he said.
That means Green and Douglas may be expected to carry the same workload the team was relying on marquee backs Gurley and Marshall to provide. Backing them up will be Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton, players Georgia fans might remember stepping into temporary emergency roles in 2011.
Because the Bulldogs have been cut deeply in both the rushing and receiving ranks, there isn’t one option for the offense to lean more heavily on to get through the second half of the season.
“I think it will just be Georgia football as usual, just with different guys,” Conley said.
Through five games, the Bulldogs have run the ball 210 times (215 yards per game) and thrown it 152 (315 ypg). That kind of balance is what has made Georgia one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. Without star receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett in his depleted target corps, Murray can’t be expected to carry the offense with his arm.
“It stinks,” Murray said of the unnatural spate of attrition. “You want to be at full strength and we’ve been playing so well. But we have a lot of talent.”
The faith in Green and Douglas to step up runs deep. The defensive players – who face them most of the reps in practice anyway – are impressed.
“They’re some tough guys, they don’t quit,” said senior defensive end Garrison Smith. “I’ve seen it in Brendan Douglas even before he put on pads. I just saw how hard he works. That’s why I was always trying to tell people about him because I knew how good he was. They’re just hard-nosed guys. Little J.J. (Green) is a small guy but he has the heart of somebody that’s 7-foot (tall). He comes at you on every play and he runs hard. You’ve seen how he was running. Linebackers couldn’t even tackle him sometimes. When you have guys like that who are just going to compete, it doesn’t matter. I have full faith in them. They’re going to get the job done.”
They have to for Georgia to reach its desired destination of the Southeastern Conference championship and a BCS title shot. The odds have obviously grown much longer without five of its best offensive weapons.
But that’s not an excuse Georgia is willing to accept.
“Basically, in the game of football and the game of life, adversity strikes,” Richt said. “Things happen, and you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do about it. You can panic, you can get mad, you can start blaming things or you can assess where you’re at and realize what resources you have. You find a way to win, and that’s what we do here at Georgia.”
While it’s not what they expected even a week ago, the Bulldogs believe Green and Douglas will be part of the solution and not the problem.