ATHENS – There was the old Nick Chubb, for about three or four seconds. He took a handoff on a power sweep, ran around left end and jetted down the sideline. He looked ahead and saw only green. He was thinking touchdown.
“I should’ve taken it in,” he said Tuesday.
That didn’t happen. Notre Dame safety Nick Coleman got an angle on Chubb and lunged at the legs of the Georgia running back, tripping him up at midfield and limiting the gain to 30 yards. The Bulldogs later settled for a field goal. Chubb settled for his lone individual highlight on his first carry of the night.
It’s early in the 2017 season, and nobody is quite sure what to think of Georgia yet. If the performance in South Bend is any indication, the defense might meet or exceed all expectations. They had three sacks, forced three fumbles (recovered two) and nine tackles for loss, and locked down a road victory in a distant stadium against a Top 25 opponent. That could be positive foreshadowing for the SEC season.
But what should anybody expect of Chubb? He returned for his senior season because, he said, “It just didn’t feel right to leave" and, "I wanted to win more games."
Maybe. But had Chubb been projected to go higher than in the middle rounds of the NFL draft, he might’ve said, "Leaving just felt right." His NFL stock dropped because he wasn't the same back in the 2016 season, his first following a major knee injury in 2015. Chubb required reconstructive surgery when he tore three knee ligaments at Tennessee.
Chubb acknowledges now what he wouldn’t last season, but is common following a significant knee surgery: It took a full year before he started to feel like his old self.
“Just having that year to get things back … now I feel a lot better,” he said.
But it’s not certain he is the same player, with the same burst and ability to cut and power over defenders . In 2015, before the injury, Chubb has 92 carries for 747 yards, setting a school record of 8.1 yards per carry. That average dropped to 5.0 per carry in 2016. He is at 5.7 so far this season after games against Appalachian State and Notre Dame. Some would lay the blame on Georgia’s offensive line. But the truth is the line wasn’t very good in 2015, either.
Chubb had 13 carries against Notre Dame. But after the 30-yarder, he totaled only 33 yards on 12 attempts (2.75 per). Seven of his 13 runs went for 1, 0 or minus-1 yard. It's one thing for the blocking not to be there. It's another not to get past the first guy.
This week, Georgia has an empty-the-bench kind of home game against Samford. They should win easily. The SEC schedule that follows will reveal far more about what's left in Chubb’s legs, and what direction Georgia’s offense is headed, and maybe how far this team can go.
The three may be connected.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney looks like they're still trying to figure it out. The offense used 18 formations/personnel groupings against Notre Dame, via a film review by DawgNation’s Seth Emerson .
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm lined up in the shotgun or pistol formation more than 80 percent of the offensive snaps. That could have been just to give Fromm more time in his first start, or in hopes of spreading out Notre Dame defenders. But this isn't the time to guess what Georgia’s offensive identity will be moving forward.
With uncertainty at quarterback – Fromm is a freshman, and Jacob Eason likely will miss at least a few more games with a sprained knee – a strong running game is essential. If the Dogs can run and defend, they can win a lot of games, and certainly win the SEC East.
But how is Chubb viewed by coaches? He had two carries for nine yards to open the third quarter, then didn't touch the ball again until the fourth (four possessions later). He and Sony Michel had the same number of touches in the Notre Dame game (13 carries, one reception). Freshman D’Andre Swift had only two carries, but one of those went for 40 yards on a jet sweep.
This is what Smart said of Swift in the days leading to the game: "He’s a talented player. He’s very smart, very mature."
This is what Smart said of Swift after the game: "(We have) got to find ways to get No. 7 the ball, and I'm not talking about Lorenzo Carter either."
So one thing seems clear: Smart likes Swift.
"I guess it is a challenge to get everybody enough carries and enough touches," Chubb said.
Are there specific situations when he's likely to get the ball?
"Not really. We kind of all do everything."
There was a time when we knew Chubb was the man in the Georgia backfield. That time might come again, and if it does then the outlook for the Dogs' is bright. Until then, we can't be certain of anything this season.
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