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How did UGA’s running backs contribute to first win? Breaking down four performances

‘Good is not gonna be good enough’: Kirby Smart speaks after Georgia’s 30-6 win over Vanderbilt

Georgia Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart speaks to the media after the Bulldogs' 30-6 win over Vanderbilt August 31, 2019, in Nashville.
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Georgia Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart speaks to the media after the Bulldogs' 30-6 win over Vanderbilt August 31, 2019, in Nashville.

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Forty carries, 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

It all adds up to a dominant rushing performance by Georgia in its season-opening 30-6 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday. However, the four running backs who largely produced those statistics left the Music City singing a different tune.

The player who led the attack is the one most would expect: junior D’Andre Swift. The Philadelphia native finished the night with 16 carries for 152 yards, averaging more than nine yards per carry.

Swift described his performance as just “all right.”

“I think I left a couple of runs out there on the field,” Swift said on Sep. 2. “I could have broken a couple runs to the house.”

Head coach Kirby Smart said he notices the same lack of complacency from all his players. The Bulldogs pursue excellence instead of perfection, Smart said, and the head coach noted (correctly as it turned out) that Swift would not describe his performance as excellent.

Telegraph photographer Jason Vorhees' favorite photos from Georgia Bulldogs versus Vanderbilt Commodores football game in Nashville, Tennessee Saturday, August 31, 2019.

“When he makes guys miss, I think that’s where he measures his skill set,” Smart said. “He made a lot of people miss but I think there were some opportunities in there where he could’ve made a different cut and got more yards. That’s a great competitor to me, is figuring out what I can do better to help the team.”

But while Georgia’s top back admitted Saturday’s performance wasn’t all it could have been, other Bulldogs couldn’t help but take a rosier outlook.

Take senior Brian Herrien, for example. He’s spent his entire Georgia career down the depth chart behind not only Swift, but former Bulldogs Elijah Holyfield, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

Those four had one thing Herrien didn’t: a high recruiting ranking coming out of high school. However, Smart said he doesn’t pay attention to those kinds of metrics.

“He’s just as talented as those guys,” Smart said. “He wasn’t from some of the same places and he didn’t have his academics as much in order, and Brian plays with a chip on his shoulder because of that, but I never perceived Brian to be any less than other guys.”

In a moment of reflection, Smart said the team maybe should have given Herrien more opportunities last season because of how he earns it in practice. But when his number has been called in his career, Herrien’s delivered.

On his first collegiate carry in 2016, he scampered for a 19-yard touchdown against North Carolina. Later that year, with Chubb injured in a marquee home matchup against Tennessee, Herrien came in and ran with extreme effort on his way to 74 yards on 15 carries.

Now, his combination of talent, experience and work ethic have him in position in 2019 to play his biggest role yet in the Georgia offense. In the season debut against Vanderbilt, he rushed for 65 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown.

“This journey was just something I had to go through,” Herrien said after Saturday’s game. “I don’t know what’s next, but God has a plan for everybody. I had to give it all I had and go hard, because I know I’ve been training for it.”

While Herrien is nearing the end of his Bulldog journey, the other two backs from Saturday’s game are just getting theirs started.

First, there is sophomore James Cook. He ran for 296 yards on 41 carries last season, and he totaled 22 yards and a touchdown on a pair of carries against the Commodores while also chipping in two receptions for 13 yards.

That leaves just one Georgia running back, and it’s the one everyone was most anxious to see this season: Zeus.

Redshirt freshman Zamir White, the top-rated running back in the Class of 2018, tore his ACL covering a punt last fall camp. Since then, Bulldogs everywhere have been eagerly anticipating his first collegiate snaps while following along with his recovery.

Georgia tailback Zamir White (3) during the Bulldogs’ game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Chamberlain Smith Special to The Telegraph

Those first snaps came in the second half on Saturday night in Nashville. When he checked in for the first time, thunderous cheers of “Zeus” rang out from the throngs of Georgia fans in attendance.

White tallied 52 yards on five carries, in the process showing flashes of his potential that has captivated Georgia fans ever since he committed.

“I think he was anxious to get out there and go run the ball the other night,” Smart said. “He continues to get better and get healthier. I think the sky’s the limit because he continues to improve. He improves through protection and reps and getting more opportunities.”

Four backs, four different outlooks coming out of the first game of the year. Going forward, they will continue to work together as one unit on a run-first team with lofty expectations.

“Everyone wants to see each other win no matter who is starting,” Swift said. “Everyone is going to get the amount of touches needed to win the game. So, we just go into games according to the game plan we have that game knowing we just want to see each other win.”

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