ATHENS — His picture adorned an article in USA Today that proclaimed his team the preseason No. 1 team in the country. He shared Sports Illustrated cover-boy status with two teammates. Several Web sites have been created to promote his run for a Heisman.
Beyond all the hype, however, Knowshon Moreno is still the same player from New Jersey with a bright smile and a penchant for embarrassing would-be tacklers.
"He’s the same old guy," quarterback Matthew Stafford said, "just having fun playing ball."
There is one big difference for Moreno, however, as he prepares for his sophomore season at Georgia. He’s now the wise, old veteran in the backfield.
Sure, Moreno grabbed headlines last year. And yes, he racked up more carries than anyone else on the team, producing more than 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns. But he was the youngest member of a three-headed running game that also featured seniors Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin.
This year, however, Moreno is the elder statesman who will work with a group of freshmen. That means in addition to winning the Heisman, avoiding defenders and carrying Georgia to a national championship, Moreno will be expected to be a role model for a whole new crew of Georgia runners.
"They’re young, just getting in here, and I was like that when I first got here," Moreno said of Georgia’s young runners. "I still have mistakes sometimes. But everyone’s working hard, they’re learning."
The group of understudies includes redshirt freshman Caleb King, who arrived at Georgia with perhaps more hype than Moreno but sat out the 2007 season because of the Bulldogs’ crowded backfield. Beyond King is sophomore Kalvin Daniels and three freshmen — Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas and Dontavius Jackson — who are fighting for playing time and hoping to avoid the redshirt fate that befell both Moreno and King.
From what Moreno has seen in the preseason, that shouldn’t be a problem.
"Any one of the backs you put in there, they’re going to get the job done," Moreno said. "They’re going to get their time."
The role of mentor might seem a bit much for Moreno, who has just one season of playing time under his belt. After all, he’s used to being the one asking advice from the seniors.
But while Moreno doesn’t have years of experience, head coach Mark Richt said there may not be anyone who does a better job of leading by example.
"If they just watch him," Richt said, "they’ll learn how to do it right."
In fact, the chance to watch Moreno at work was one of the biggest reasons Thomas ended up at Georgia.
"It’s exciting to me because you see him play, and you know that he knows what he’s doing," Thomas said. "You can learn a lot from him being a redshirt freshman getting in and taking off and having a big impact. You see things are possible, and you just watch him and learn and hook on his work ethic."
Things are definitely possible for the young running backs, according to Richt. While Moreno figures to get 20 to 25 carries per game, Richt said the second spot on the depth chart is up for grabs, and plenty of playing time is there for the taking.
That kind of competition could breed some animosity among the crowded group of tailback hopefuls, but Moreno provides the template for that, too. He waited patiently through his redshirt season in 2006 for a chance to show what he could do, then deferred to Brown and Lumpkin throughout the early part of the 2007 season, despite his impressive numbers.
That team concept has carried over to this year, even though the seniors have moved on.
"It’s just like last year, there’s no jealousy," King said. "When somebody does something good, everybody high-fives. When somebody does something wrong, everybody gets corrected. It’s just totally united."
That philosophy even extends to Moreno, King said.
Despite his gaudy statistics and preseason hype, he said he’s approaching the season with a lot to prove. And if one of those other running backs starts taking some of his carries, that’s OK, too.
"I’ll make the best out of the ones I get," Moreno said.