Bulldogs must run before they can walk past Clemson

Bulldogs running back Kendall Milton breaks loose for a touchdown during the G-Day spring game in April.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Bulldogs running back Kendall Milton breaks loose for a touchdown during the G-Day spring game in April. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Come Sept. 4, Georgia can beat Clemson even if quarterback JT Daniels doesn’t put all the Heisman Trophy voters in his back pocket on that first Saturday.

Georgia can win this big game – like 40-inch-waist-comfort-fit big – despite the rather gory accumulation of setbacks it has suffered in the run-up to the season. Practice casualties have mounted. Welcome to the toughest intramurals on campus.

Winning the opener against the preseason No. 3 may well take what it has so often taken, at least on offense, for the Bulldogs. Regardless of how the college game has evolved and how offenses have gotten all glittery, tucking the ball and running into people still holds a fundamental importance.

No matter how much the program vows to modernize, Georgia is still Georgia and Kirby is still Kirby. That means the Bulldogs should never lack for talented backs, and coach Smart will never lose the sledgehammer mentality to run the ball on demand.

There are questions scattered around other pockets of skill. Georgia’s best receiver – George Pickens – was lost to a spring injury. Its prized transfer pass-catcher – Arik Gilbert – is dealing with personal issues.

An offensive line whose presumptive starting center has a casted club for a snapping hand may or may not be able to construct a useful pocket for the golden quarterback. And Clemson surely will instruct its defensive line to come at Daniels like he stole their NIL money – that’s just the kind of erudite strategy that has made the Tigers’ defensive coordinator so rich he might start his own space program.

But what is unquestioned before even the first kickoff is called back for an illegal block – and what is a real strength for Georgia in this matchup – is that Bulldogs have legs up to their neck. Seniors returned, freshmen grew up, another strong recruiting class signed on, and before you know it, you have a half-dozen backs capable of a romp. If that line can get any push at all, if it can create the slightest crack – voila – a sustainable ground game.

Ducks quack, cats purr and the Bulldogs need to rush the ball. It’s in their nature. The current group of backs appears to be fine caretakers of that instinct.

Said sophomore Kendall Milton, perhaps the most versatile inside/outside runner of the bunch: “It’s just crazy we have this many talented backs on one roster. You look around the (meeting) room, and everybody has that big-time-running-back kind of potential. Everybody has different tools and different ways they can contribute to the game.”

His enthusiasm didn’t end there: “Once you get the opportunity, you got to strike, and I feel like this running back group is something special. Having everyone in one group is something you don’t see a lot.”

The NFL draft claimed Clemson’s best, the ACC’s career leading rusher Travis Etienne. Reaching down to poach from the Georgia secondary schools – three of their top five backs are from these parts – the Tigers, too, have a room-full of talent. Still, there lingers the question whether any of it can measure up to the multi-faceted Etienne.

“As far as having that one lead dog, I don’t think we need that,” former Clemson back and current running back coach C.J. Spiller, has noted. “It’s going to take a collective effort from everybody.”

Georgia has backs who can run for power – junior Zamir White (you can call him Zeus), Milton, sophomore Daijun Edwards. It has backs who can get the edge (although OC Todd Monken covets more explosive plays) – James Cook and Kenny McIntosh. Some can even do both.

An increasingly loud narrative preceding the Clemson game is that the Bulldogs runners may have to step forward and assume an even heavier load in light of some of the passing-game absences. More may be required of the team that ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing last season, fractionally behind Alabama at 189 yards per game.

If so, the Georgia running backs feel up to it. “They’re definitely a great defensive team, a lot of players to look out for,” Milton said of Clemson.

But he pointed that he hasn’t exactly been practicing against paper cut-outs all summer. “I feel as a group that’s preparing us very well, going against the D-line we go against every day.”

Sept. 4 looks a little more palatable when you get beyond what Georgia might be missing against Clemson to what it has as a virtual birthright – that running game.

So much can go right for the Bulldogs if they are able to rush consistently, command the clock and blunt the Clemson pass rush with the run. Just doing what comes naturally may be the best game plan.