ATHENS — Washaun Ealey and the Georgia Bulldogs are winning the turnover battle and hiding their razors.
Ealey, Georgia’s sophomore tailback, lost fumbles near the goal line in losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State early in the season.
Ealey didn’t fumble while rushing for a season-high 123 yards with a touchdown in last week’s 43-0 win over Vanderbilt. Georgia was a combined plus-5 in turnover margin in back-to-back lopsided wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Coach Mark Richt said Tuesday his players are allowed to grow their beards every week they come out on top in turnovers.
“Every time we win the turnover ratio they get to grow their beards as long as they want,” Richt said. “I hope they’re the nastiest looking bunch in America by the end of the year.”
The shaggy Bulldogs play at Kentucky on Saturday.
Richt’s policy is not new. Georgia players didn’t earn the chance to grow their beards last season.
Georgia finished 118th of 120 teams in the nation in turnover ratio in 2009. There has been a turnaround this year. Georgia is tied for second in the Southeastern Conference and 30th in the nation with a plus-4 margin through seven games.
Georgia (3-4 overall, 2-3 SEC) lost the turnover battle in three of its four losses. It was even against South Carolina.
Ealey struggled to protect the ball early in the season. Georgia trailed South Carolina 14-6 and had the ball at the Gamecocks’ 3 in the third quarter when Ealey lost a fumble in the Bulldogs’ 17-6 loss on Sept. 11.
He had another key fumble at the Mississippi State 1 when Georgia was driving to take the lead late in a 24-12 loss on Sept. 25.
“We know Washaun hasn’t tried to fumble,” Richt said. “He’s had pretty good fundamentals in securing the ball at times when the ball has come out.”
Even with sound fundamentals, there’s a price to be paid for losing the ball, especially near the goal line.
“If it comes out a lot, you’re not going to play as much,” Richt said.
Ealey had only one carry for 15 yards against Colorado and 12 carries for 33 yards against Tennessee.
The sophomore started against Vanderbilt as Caleb King served the first game of a two-game suspension. Ealey’s 123 yards rushing included a 58-yard run in his best game since 183 yards against Georgia Tech to close the 2009 regular season.
“Very important, I think, for him as well as for us,” Richt said.
Ealey, who kept both hands on the ball against Vanderbilt when he expected contact, was relieved to show he can be trusted.
“I was really happy to get out there and help my team,” Ealey said. “I know that they were really depending on me. The coaches told me that I was going to get another chance, and I’m happy I took advantage of it.”
With King still suspended following his arrest for failing to pay a speeding ticket, Ealey is expected to start against Kentucky. Carlton Thomas, who ran for 40 yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt, will play behind Ealey.
The focus will continue to be on protecting the ball on offense and forcing turnovers on defense.
“We’ve been preaching it, we’ve been repping it,” Richt said. “I’m glad we’ve finally been winning it a couple of times, as much time as we spend on ball security, ball disruption drills that we do. ... I’m sure they’re getting tired of it. Hopefully it’s paying off now.”
Several players were unshaven for the weekly news conference on Wednesday.
“They’re getting a little furrier,” Richt said.
Richt said it’s difficult to tell when some players go without shaving.
“Some guys once they shave they’re done for the year even if they let it grow,” Richt said before calling out his starting center as an example. “I don’t know if Ben Jones has any facial hair yet.”
Senior receiver Kris Durham, who has a start on his beard, said he appreciates the option of not shaving.
“I think a lot of the guys appreciate the fact that we’re allowed to have facial hair,” Durham said. “That’s an incentive for us to win the turnover battle in the game.
“I want to keep the facial hair as long as I can, because when I get in the real world I’m not going to be able to have it that much. It’s going to need to be a little neater.”