ATHENS — Isaiah Crowell, who played like a lead back even in a reserve role, is ready for his first start as Georgia’s tailback.
Coach Mark Richt said Tuesday that Crowell would start Saturday against Coastal Carolina.
Playing behind Richard Samuel, Crowell rushed for 118 yards with a touchdown in last week’s 45-42 loss to then-No. 12 South Carolina. The freshman also caught a 17-yard touchdown pass.
“I think he is a very special back,” Richt said. “As the game was going on, I thought he was running well, but when I looked at the film ... he really made some great runs.”
Richt says Crowell’s production is “a big part” of his promotion to starter. Richt also said Samuel is “kind of hobbled” by a heel injury. If Samuel can’t play this week, junior Carlton Thomas could have his first carries of the season behind Crowell.
Crowell leads Georgia (0-2) with 178 yards rushing. Richt said Crowell will benefit from playing against Boise State in the Georgia Dome and his first Southeastern Conference game against South Carolina.
“I think he understands a lot more about what it takes and I think he’s even more motivated to work even harder in practice and to make sure he takes care of every little detail,” Richt said. “Not to say that he wasn’t, but just he’s a freshman and until you play in an SEC game like that you really don’t get it, fully. I saw more urgency on his part, even in yesterday’s practice. He seems excited about what the future holds.”
Richt said more motivation also can come with moving into the starting role.
“Now that he’s in that role, a lot of guys when they get in that starter’s role, they get an even greater sense of urgency in terms of preparation,” Richt said.
Georgia needs Crowell and a stronger running game to help take pressure off quarterback Aaron Murray, who has been sacked eight times in the two games.
Murray said Crowell has “looked awesome” in his first two games.
“I mean, everyone can see it when it comes to the running game, passing game, blocking,” Murray said. “The kid is a special player. He only gets better and better with every game. He can say ‘Hey, I can play in the SEC game. I can play against big-time competition.’
Crowell’s learning curve included a fumble that set up a key South Carolina touchdown.
The fumble hurt, but Crowell said he felt better when he was given another chance.
“I learned that they have confidence in me,” Crowell said after the game. “It was my fault. I told them it wouldn’t happen again. It was nice to get back out there so I could try to redeem myself.”
Georgia needs Crowell after losing the top two rushers from 2009. Washaun Ealey transferred to Jacksonville State and Caleb King was ruled academically ineligible.
Crowell is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Samuel, who moved back to tailback from linebacker this summer, has 18 carries for 55 yards, an average of 3.1 yards per carry.
Richt hopes Crowell’s endurance improves. The freshman took a shot in his ribs against South Carolina and had difficulty breathing when asked to carry the ball on back-to-back plays.
“I think he’ll stay in a little bit more than a couple runs,” Richt said. “I think his endurance will build as we go, as he prepares and as it cools, too, during the season.”
Freshmen also have moved into prominent roles to replace 2009 leading receiver A.J. Green, now with the Cincinnati Bengals. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads Georgia with eight catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Michael Bennett has three catches, including a grab against South Carolina that Richt called “one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”
“I was very impressed,” said Richt, who said the two young receivers still make mistakes but “are very, very competitive.”
“They’ve got really good ball skills, obviously, and there’s a toughness about them I really like,” Richt said. “Sometimes it takes time to get a guy tough enough to play the game the way it should be played and block the way you should block or at least get after it the way you should get after it. I think these guys showed up with some physical and mental toughness that I really like.”