ATHENS — Mark Richt knows he has it good at Georgia when he can replace the first running back selected in the NFL draft with another back regarded as perhaps the best in the nation.
Todd Gurley was a rare talent. Nick Chubb may be even better.
Chubb took over as Georgia’s lead back when Gurley’s 2014 season was shortened by a suspension and an injury. For most programs, having Gurley’s season cut in half could have been a devastating loss. Chubb kept the running game going. He was named Southeastern Conference freshman of the year after rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“We are blessed, no doubt,” Richt said last week. “We’ve had great backs.”
Just like Gurley one year ago, Chubb will enter the season regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He is expected to be the foundation of the Bulldogs’ offense, especially as the team continues to search for a new starting quarterback.
Chubb was the first Georgia player since Herschel Walker in 1982 to post eight straight games with at least 100 yards rushing.
Perhaps most surprising about Chubb’s freshman season was his endurance. He seemed to grow stronger during games, no matter how heavy the workload. He stayed strong through the season and finished by running for 266 yards in Georgia’s Belk Bowl win over Louisville. It was a SEC bowl record.
“I knew the kid was pretty good,” Richt said. “I didn’t realize the kind of stamina he had. I thought he would be mentally and physically tough because of the program he came out of. But to carry the ball as many times as he did more by need than by design, he was able to handle it. He was able to stay pretty healthy throughout.”
It’s no embarrassment for a player to “tap out” during a game, asking for a rest by tapping his helmet. Richt said he never saw Chubb give that sign, even when having back-to-back games of 38 and 30 carries against Missouri and Arkansas, respectively.
Richt hopes Chubb will have more help this season. Keith Marshall, who shared the spotlight with Gurley as a freshman in 2012, may be fully recovered from knee and ankle injuries.
“He looks great,” Chubb said. “I don’t know how he looked in practice freshman year, but I know sophomore year he didn’t look like he was 100 percent. Now he’s looking very good.”
Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas also return at tailback.
Chubb said he expects the carries to be spread out more this season. He just shrugged when asked if he is ready for more 30-carry games if necessary.
“I could do it,” he said.
It’s a typical response for the unassuming Chubb, who doesn’t seem to understand why he so quickly became a star, especially on campus.
“I am surprised sometimes,” he said of the looks he gets from other students. “Sometimes I see them just glance at me and they know it’s me automatically. That’s crazy.”
While Chubb is a big man on campus, quarterbacks Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert are battling for notoriety — and the starting job.
Georgia will hold its first preseason scrimmage on Friday. Richt said Wednesday he’ll give the three quarterbacks “as equal of an opportunity as possible” in the scrimmage.
“They’ll get shots with the ones and twos, and they may all get shots with the threes as well,” Richt said.
The starter may be the quarterback who can best avoid mistakes in the passing game.
The handoffs to Chubb should be the easy part.