When Kregg Lumpkin went down in the first week of practice with a knee injury, conventional wisdom said Michael Cooper would jump to the first team.
After all, the Screven County grad was working with the second team at the time. However, highly touted freshman Danny Ware leapfrogged Cooper and currently is penciled in as Lumpkin's replacement.
Now, Georgia's returning leading rusher faces an uphill challenge to crack the starting lineup for the Bulldogs' season opener against Georgia Southern on Sept. 4.
"It's not set on who's No. 1 or No. 2," Cooper said. "We're rotating backs, trying to get some different guys in there with the first team."
Cooper has battled wavering thoughts and illness his first two seasons just to get back in position to become coach Mark Richt's go-to guy. After spending his first season as a redshirt, Cooper made public his intention to possibly transfer out.
"That was just a crazy idea I had," he said. "I've always been settled in since I've been here. Everything's cool now."
But everything wasn't so cool earlier this year. Cooper - who was diagnosed with a sickle cell trait last year - missed most of spring practice with migraine headaches.
"It's fine now," he said. "I've had no occurrences of migraines or headaches. It's just a seasonal thing."
The headaches forced Cooper to the sideline for the G-Day game in April, opening the door for Ware, who didn't disappoint. He rushed for 45 yards on eight carries, making a lasting impression on Georgia coaches.
Despite starting eight of 13 games last season and leading the team with 673 yards, Cooper did not enter spring practice as the team's No. 1 running back. He failed to rush for 100 yards in a game and his blocking was suspect - the fall media guide lists Cooper as missing most of the Georgia Tech game with an ankle sprain, but even he admitted he didn't injure his ankle, and some observers say Richt pulled him from the game because of a missed block.
Lumpkin started the Capital One Bowl game against Purdue and was expected to start for the Bulldogs this season. But after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 9, he's out for the season.
Cooper now finds himself locked in a battle with Ware, junior Tyson Browning and freshman Thomas Brown as Georgia tries to find a gamebreaker for its team, which is expected to contend for a national championship. Tony Milton, who started the first three games last season before a season-ending leg injury, also is expected to compete for carries.
"We all have a good relationship," Cooper said. "You have to when you're a team."
For now, Ware is the top tailback. If Cooper doesn't immediately start, he will most likely be the first option off the bench.
"We've been doing it since I began here," he said. "As long as we win, I'm happy."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A synopsis of what can be expected of Bulldogs from the area this season:
DE Richard Cook, Washington-Wilkes, redshirt freshman: With solid depth at the defensive line, Cook was redshirted last year. He'll have to wait another year since David Pollack and Will Thompson return again.
RB Michael Cooper, Screven County, redshirt sophomore: If Cooper can battle the migraines that have been plaguing him, he might be able to factor into the Bulldogs' running back picture, particularly with Kregg Lumpkin shelved with a knee injury.
LB Arnold Harrison, Josey, senior: Moving Thomas Davis to safety opened up a hole for Harrison, who wound up earning a starting spot for 10 of Georgia's 14 games. He had seven tackles against South Carolina and eight against Louisiana State in the SEC title game. Look for more from Harrison.
OG Fernando Velasco, Jefferson County, sophomore: Was used some in reserve as a freshman last season due to a lack of depth on the offensive line. Velasco, the recipient of Georgia's 2003 "Iron Man Award," will see more time in '04.
LB Danny Verdun-Wheeler, Thomson, sophomore: Wound up starting two games at linebacker and playing in 12 as a frosh. He will likely back up Harrison, as he did most of last year, but this early preparation will make him a force in the future.
OG Seth Watts, Washington County, freshman: The Bulldogs line is still a bit shallow, but Watts might get a redshirt this year anyway.