ATHENS — A midseason adjustment to Georgia’s offensive line has helped Caleb King and Washaun Ealey provide a late-season boost to a rushing attack that still ranks near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia, which plays Kentucky on Saturday night, struggled through the first half of the season to replace 2008 star running back Knowshon Moreno, the Denver Broncos’ first-round draft pick this year.
Richard Samuel started the first six games at running back. He still has the Bulldogs’ only 100-yard game of the season — 104 yards at Arkansas on Sept. 19 — but Georgia averaged only 97.17 yards rushing for its first six games to rank last in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Mark Richt settled on King, a sophomore, and Ealey, a freshman, as the primary running backs about the same time he settled on the current version of the offensive line.
When Josh Davis was fully recovered from offseason surgery on his left shoulder, he became the starting right tackle. Clint Boling moved to left tackle, clearing the way for Cordy Glenn’s move from left tackle to left guard. Glenn had to spend time at tackle after starter Trinton Sturdivant’s season-ending knee injury in the opening game against Oklahoma State.
“I think when we made a change in the lineup up front it really helped us,” Richt said. “We wanted Cordy at guard all year long. ... He is a tremendous power guard run-game blocker.”
Richt said the current combination “clicked better.”
“That group as a whole is playing better,” he said. “They are communicating well. They have very few missed assignments, and they are blocking with some tenacity, which it takes.”
Davis made his first start at right tackle against Vanderbilt on Oct. 17, and that was the start of the running game’s surge.
Beginning with 173 yards rushing in the 34-10 win over the Commodores, Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) has averaged 191.75 yards rushing in its last four games.
Georgia still ranks only 11th in the SEC in rushing. It hasn’t finished a season so low since ranking last in the league in 1994.
King, who rushed for two touchdowns in last week’s 31-24 win over Auburn, is expected to start against Kentucky (6-4, 2-4).
Ealey had a career-high 98 yards rushing on 18 carries with one touchdown as Georgia had 169 yards rushing against Auburn.
“It’s a great feeling,” Ealey said. “I wish we did this a lot earlier in the season but we’ve been running hard in practice and hopefully the same results will keep coming.”
Georgia’s improved running game has caught the attention of Kentucky coach Rich Brooks.
“I clearly think they may have changed emphasis a little bit and certainly in the second half against Auburn they took it to them physically and really ran it down their throat, I thought,” Brooks said.
King began preseason practice as the projecting starter before suffering a hamstring injury. He missed two games and then suffered a concussion and fractured jaw against Louisiana State on Oct. 3, forcing him to miss one game.
“It pretty much has been a long road,” King said. “It felt good with those two touchdowns last week, helping the team to win.”
King and Ealey will be in the spotlight against Kentucky as Georgia will be without star receiver A.J. Green, who has a shoulder injury. Green may not return before a bowl game.
Kentucky could stack its defense to stop the run and made quarterback Joe Cox pass to his less-experienced receivers.
While King recovered from his injuries, Ealey practiced his pass-blocking. Ealey has at least 70 yards rushing in four straight games, but his struggles in protecting Cox kept him from holding the starting job.
“In high school I never had to block,” Ealey said. “I was either running the ball or being a decoy. Coming in I didn’t think I’d have to block as much as I am now, but I’m trying to keep working hard in practice to get better. I feel I’m getting better.”