ATHENS — Caleb King had waited close to three years for his chance to be a starting tailback again. When the opportunity finally arrived, a hamstring injury set him back another six weeks.
The time off was tough, but when King finally returned to action last week against Arkansas, he said the wait was well worth it.
“Of course I’ve got some rust,” King said. “That was my first game in a long time that I’ve played that much. But I’ll feel better going into this next game.”
King’s 11 carries were just one shy of his career high, and he estimates last week’s game was the most he has been on the field since an injury ended his senior season in high school in September of 2006.
Although King’s hamstring injury had effectively ended his pursuit of the starting tailback job in early August, the sophomore split playing time in his first game back with starter Richard Samuel, and for the most part, it was King who appeared to be the stronger runner.
King tallied 59 yards in the game — the second best total of his career and a high water mark in SEC play — and looked sharp doing it.
“He was close to really busting a couple of runs loose,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “It was good for him to get back in the game and feel the speed. It was probably tough for him watching Richard the last couple weeks. He wants to get his carries, too.”
After waiting for so long to have a chance to be the starter, the injury came at the worst possible time for King.
During Georgia’s first preseason scrimmage, King went down with a sore hamstring. He was day-to-day for weeks, and head coach Mark Richt was forced to scratch King from the active roster late in the week before each of the Bulldogs’ first two games.
Meanwhile, Samuel seized the opportunity to nab the starting job, turning in a strong preseason and running well during Georgia’s first two games.
It was frustrating, to say the least, but King said he didn’t let the time away erode his confidence.
“It didn’t really bother me because I know I can play football,” King said. “I’ve been playing since I was small. It’s pretty much just going out there and getting the ball so I can show my talent, and the coaches believed in me and gave me the ball.”
First-year running backs coach Bryan McClendon said he made it a priority to reassure King along the way. Keeping his sophomore tailback informed on everything that was happening was key, and King made certain he stayed involved in the offense, even if he wasn’t playing.
For two seasons in Athens, King faced few questions about his physical ability. It was his mental approach that had coaches and fans concerned.
In that respect, McClendon said, King has already passed the biggest test he’ll face this season. Returning to work with such a strong opening performance underscored the progress King had made — not just in terms of blocking and reading defenses, but in keeping his focus on the game even when the ball isn’t in his hands.
“Just talking with him, you know it’s hard for him,” McClendon said. “It was going to be hard for anybody who loves to compete. But he did a good job, and I just had to make sure he knew when he got back, he was going to be in there because he’d earned it.”
Of course, King’s return to the lineup simply ignites a new round of controversy as to which player should earn the bulk of the carries, and Samuel’s two fumbles last week only further fueled the fire.
But the competition is a good thing, King said, and his relationship with Samuel has remained strong throughout the process.
“We’re close,” King said. “When he comes off the field, I tell him what he did wrong. He does the same thing with me. We have a good relationship.”
The final verdict on who will be Georgia’s longtime starting tailback may still be weeks away, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said this week’s game against Arizona State will be a proving ground for both King and Samuel.
“A lot depends on how they’re running the football,” Bobo said. “Both guys will get an equal amount early on, and if one guy gets hot, we’ll stick with him.”
King hopes that will be him, but he’s not setting any lofty expectations. He’s just happy to be playing again, and he’s working to improve each time out.
Watching the game film from last week’s win over Arkansas was a nice reminder of how good it felt to actually be on the field, King said. It had been a while since he’d had film to watch.
King said he was pleased with what he saw on the tape. He ran hard, picking up extra yards when the blocks weren’t necessarily there. He pass protected extremely well, too – a big improvement in an area that cost him playing time a year ago.
But there was something more he wished he had accomplished. He wanted a touchdown. A trip to the end zone, King said, would have felt awfully good.
After such a long layoff, however, King said there’s solace in knowing he’ll have many more opportunities to cash in for a touchdown. And when he finally does, he plans to make it memorable.
“It’s going to be a dream come true,” King said, “and I want a long touchdown run.”