Practice had been dismissed and Scott Hendrix had stayed around afterward to paint the football field, as is his routine on Thursday afternoons of game weeks. That’s when he got “the call.”
One of Cedartown High’s assistant coaches had returned home and heard the news that Todd Gurley, Georgia’s star tailback, had been indefinitely suspended. He immediately called Hendrix, the Cedartown head coach, to share the news.
“I knew what it meant,” Hendrix shared Friday. “I knew Nick was the only one left.”
“Nick” is Nick Chubb. As in the Bulldogs’ exciting young tailback from Cedartown. And in this particular case, Chubb is the “next man up.”
The 5-foot-10, 228-pound freshman will get his first career start Saturday as No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) takes on No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).
“I don’t know how well he’ll play Saturday. Nobody really knows that,” Hendrix said. “But what I do know is he’ll be prepared and he’ll fight and scratch and kick for everything he gets.”
Chubb tended to come through for Hendrix and the Cedartown Bulldogs when he rushed for 5,411 yards and 79 touchdowns his final two seasons.
But a challenge awaits him like he’s never encountered. Not only is Georgia without Gurley, its Heisman Trophy candidate and featured offensive weapon, but the Bulldogs also will go to battle without fellow tailbacks Keith Marshall (ankle) and Sony Michel (shoulder), who are sidelined with injuries.
In addition to Chubb — who is playing with a broken thumb — Georgia will have sophomore Brendan Douglas and senior walk-on Kyle Karempelis ready to play.
Hendrix, for one, believes his guy is up for the challenge.
“Nick is so very conscientious in everything he does, whether it be a weight workout or a practice,” Hendrix said. “I mean, the kid doesn’t miss reps, he doesn’t miss anything. If anybody can rally the troops at the last minute, he’s a guy who can step in and do it. I know he’ll do his very best.”
Though he began the season behind Georgia’s established tailback duo of Gurley and Marshall — and Michel, to some extent — Chubb quickly let it be known he needed to be a factor in the rotation.
In the Bulldogs’ opener against Clemson on Aug. 30, Chubb entered the game in the fourth quarter and immediately ripped off a 47-yard, tackling-breaking touchdown run. He finished with 70 yards on only four carries.
Chubb had limited carries in Georgia’s next two games before the injuries to Marshall and Michel gradually increased his workload. With eight carries for 78 yards and a 33-yard touchdown run last week against Vanderbilt, Chubb is the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher with 224 yards and has a healthy per-carry average of 7.2.
“By the way, Chubb’s pretty good, too,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said earlier in the week, before the Gurley news broke. “Their offensive line is playing very, very well. We need to play well up front, and obviously we’re going to have to play a very, very physical game.”
Like Gurley, Chubb’s best attribute is not great speed or elusiveness — which he has — but his ability to break tackles.
The Tigers have been mediocre against the run this season. Their average of 144.2 rushing yards per game allowed ranks eighth in the SEC, and they gave up 241 yards to Indiana in a stunning 31-27 upset loss at Faurot Field on Sept. 20.
A local reporter was lauding Missouri’s “strong tackling ability” earlier this week when Pinkel cautioned him about his assessment.
“I think I would evaluate our tackling after this Saturday if I were you,” Pinkel said with a laugh.
With Gurley out Saturday, the Bulldogs may have to depend more on Hutson Mason and his rejuvenated corps of wide receivers. A week after returning from more than a year out with injured knees and catching a single pass against Vanderbilt, receiver Malcolm Mitchell practiced hard and looked more like the dynamic, playmaking weapon he was previously.
“You can tell he’s excited,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of Mitchell. “This week he just seems very confident, and I think he’s excited about playing. I think he got just enough of a taste.”
Mitchell’s presence will help. But there’s at least one coach in Cedartown who is confident that Georgia has a tailback that can be counted on in this time of need.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” Hendrix said of Chubb’s starting debut. “Everybody loves Nick. He could never play another down of football and everybody in this town would still love Nick. That’s because of what kind of kid he is. He’s beloved here, and everybody just likes him and respects because he does the right things and makes good decisions and usually out-works everybody that’s around him.”
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