ATHENS, Ga. — The Georgia football team began its season figuring a crowded group of tailbacks would quickly sort itself out. Instead, a topsy-turvy series of events has left it as muddled as ever.
Florida thought in the preseason that the return of its key athletes on offense would offset the loss of its running quarterback. Instead, like Georgia, it has been racked by suspensions and injuries.
As a result, two teams with a lot of potential in the running game have tailback units that are limping, literally and figuratively, into their rivalry game.
Georgia’s Washaun Ealey, fresh off a record-setting game at Kentucky, has been dealing with a sprained knee ligament. Ealey and his coaches have said it will not be a problem and Ealey should play, though it could affect his starting status.
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That responsibility could fall on Caleb King, back after a two-game suspension.
Florida’s Chris Rainey, who splits time between tailback and receiver, was reinstated Thursday after sitting out the past five games due to team suspension.
Jeff Demps, the Gators’ leading rusher in Rainey’s absence, has been dealing with a sprained foot. Backup Mike Gilleslee has a hamstring injury.
The moral of the story: It remains anyone’s guess who carries the ball for each team Saturday.
Ealey was realistic about the distribution of carries now that King is back.
“That was their call last Saturday, so they gave me the ball a lot. But I’m sure they’ll cut the carries down now that Caleb is back. And I’m sure Carlton (Thomas) is still in the mix.”
Thomas, who started one game, also has missed a game because of injury this season.
Ealey never had been injured before this week. But he did serve a one-game suspension following an arrest and was benched after a rash of critical fumbles.
So when he was asked this week about his five-touchdown game at Kentucky, Ealey sounded like he was talking about his early-season problems.
“I’m trying to put that behind me, because that was last game,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep moving forward. We’ve got a lot more football to play. Basically, I’m not trying to dwell on that.”
But a reporter pressed, pointing out that Herschel Walker never had five rushing touchdowns in one game.
“Yeah, I hear that name a lot,” Ealey said with a grin.
Ealey has been hearing King’s name a lot too.
King, a junior, began the year as the starter, missed time with a twisted ankle, then was close to putting a lock on the starting role until his arrest led to a suspension.
“I think he fits in our plans,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I think it’s a good problem to have. You’ve got competition there at that position. A guy gets a little banged up last week, certain times you’ve got to have more than one back, and a guy’s got to be ready to go. I think Caleb is rested up. He’s itching to get back out there and pick up where he left off.”
By the sound of it, the Bulldogs might not mind if no tailback separates from the pack. Running backs coach Bryan McClendon said the physical nature of the position requires having more than one back available.
“One thing people don’t understand, in this system, those running backs get hit every play,” McClendon said. “Whether they’re play-faking or whether they’re blocking or whether they’re running.”
As for Florida, the Gators thought the big issue this year would be replacing Tim Tebow at quarterback. That has been a problem, but the absence of Rainey and the other athletes also has hindered the offense.
“We led the SEC, I think, three or four years in a row in offense,” Gators head coach Urban Meyer said. “And it was a guy breaking a tackle, a guy making a play and a guy out-running the defense. And that’s what we have to get back to.”