ATHENS — Georgia coach Mark Richt says that freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell will return from a one-game suspension as the starter when the No. 14 Bulldogs begin practice Monday.
Crowell and fellow tailbacks Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome were held out of Georgia’s win over New Mexico State after all failing drug tests the previous week.
“I think they’ll be very thankful to play,” Richt said Sunday night. “They might be in better shape physically, but I don’t think they’ll be taking anything for granted. They’ll probably try to make up for what they’ve done.”
Georgia (7-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) will aim for its eighth straight victory when No. 24 Auburn (6-3, 4-2) visits Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
If the Bulldogs beat Auburn and Kentucky the next two weeks, they will advance to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005. Georgia moved into sole possession of first place in the East Division after South Carolina lost Saturday night at Arkansas.
“I know that the players all understand what is at stake and that we are in a better position now to control our destiny,” Richt said. “We have been fighting like mad for that ever since South Carolina beat us.”
Richt added that Crowell, Thomas and Malcome were required to report last week in the early morning and had to run sprints, pull sleds and lift weights during practice to make up for their mistakes.
Crowell, who has started five of his eight games, leads Georgia with 689 yards rushing and is fifth in the SEC with an 85.1 per game average.
The Bulldogs could get another boost if freshman Malcolm Mitchell, who has a team-high 438 yards receiving, returns this week after missing three straight games with a strained hamstring.
Georgia had won four straight over Auburn before the Tigers took a 49-31 victory last year before winning the national championship. Auburn was off last week.
Richt still isn’t sure if Blair Walsh, who has struggled since getting named first-team All-SEC and a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last season, will exclusively handle the kicking duties this week.
In the 63-16 win over New Mexico State, Walsh and fellow senior Brian Bogotay split the extra-point and kickoff responsibilities Georgia did not attempt a field goal.
“As we all know, Walsh had been struggling, and Bogotay is a very talented guy, so we felt like we wanted to give him an opportunity and for Walsh to continue to play,” Richt said. “I thought they both did great. We did that all week in practice, too. It was really a competitive situation. I think competition brings the best out of people.”
Walsh was coming off two missed field goal attempts, both from inside 40 yards, in the Oct. 29 win over Florida, dropping him to 13 of 23 this season. As a sophomore and junior, Walsh hit 40 of 43 chances.
With reserve tailback Richard Samuel out the next month following ankle surgery and the other three tailbacks suspended, Georgia turned to Brandon Harton, a former walk-on receiver, as its feature back against New Mexico State.
The redshirt sophomore finished with 98 yards rushing and one touchdown on 15 carries.
“We liked what he did,” Richt said. “There was no doubt about that. With Richard out, I’m not going to say with a certainty he would be at worst the No. 3 back, but he is battling for that spot. We are just going to have to play it out this week in practice real hard to see who we think are best suited to play.”