ATHENS — Georgia is one of those schools that likes to think of itself as Running Back U.
From Herschel Walker to Knowshon Moreno, the Bulldogs have long viewed a tough, hard-nosed ground game as being essential to their offense.
Boy, they've sure hit a speed bump this season.
Georgia ranks last in the Southeastern Conference and 105th nationally with an average of just 98.8 yards per game. The minuscule figure really stands out in a league that features the best running attack in the country (Florida at 307.5 yards) and three other schools producing more than 200 yards a contest.
"The running game opens up everything else, especially in our offense," said quarterback Joe Cox, looking ahead to Saturday's game at Tennessee. "We just need to do a better job executing the run plays so we can affect defenses when we do play action and things like that."
Georgia's running woes were especially evident in the last game, a 20-13 loss to LSU. The Tigers were able to drop plenty of guys into pass coverage because they confident of their front seven shutting down the Bulldogs on the ground.
The strategy worked: Georgia was held to a season-low 45 yards on 24 carries, with no run longer than 8 yards. For the season, the Bulldogs are averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry, also last in the SEC — a figure that would be even worse without a 61-yard touchdown run by freshman Branden Smith, normally a defensive back.
"We definitely need to run block better," coach Mark Richt said. "We need to get more yards after contact. It's been a little bit of everything in the run game."
For the season, the Bulldogs (3-2, 2-1 SEC) are running a full 50 yards behind last year's 148-yard average and still trying to sort out who the No. 1 tailback will be. Third-year sophomore Caleb King was supposed to be the starter, but he was out most of the preseason and the first two games with a hamstring injury (and now he's trying to get over a concussion and broken jaw). Sophomore Richard Samuel has started every game, but has largely shared duties since King returned.
With both Samuel and King struggling against the Tigers, Richt sent in freshman Washaun Ealey for the first time. He was clearly the most effective back, hitting the holes quicker than either Samuel or King and leading the team with 33 yards on eight carries.
"The best thing about him is he's hungry," Cox said. "He's been wanting to play and he finally got his chance. You could tell he was running really hard. He was just excited to be in the game. A lot of times, that's the type of spark you need, someone who just really wants the ball in his hands. Hopefully he'll be that player all the time, because I'm sure he's getting a lot more carries as the season goes on."
The offensive line has also been plagued by injuries, further hindering the ground game. Trinton Sturdivant went down with a season-ending knee injury for the second year in a row and Josh Davis has yet to play since offseason shoulder surgery.
While Ealey already appears to be the best option as a runner, he's still learning the offense and acknowledges that he needs to spend more time in the weight room. At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, he must bulk up to handle the blocking duties required of a position that often serves as quarterback's last line of defense against blitzes.
But he's very much aware of Georgia's proud tradition in the backfield, which also includes players such as Rodney Hampton, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis and Musa Smith.
"I love the red and black," Ealey said. "I know Georgia's history at running back. I know they have always been good and tough and like to run the ball. That's why I came here."
In fact, he's wearing No. 24 — Moreno's old number.
"That was the number they gave me," the freshman said. "Yeah, I've heard people saying I'm another Knowshon. I'm just trying to be another great back at Georgia."
The Bulldogs definitely need one this season.