ATHENS – In the moment, Tate Ratledge didn’t see what happened. All he knew was Dillon Bell scored a touchdown on the play that was called, which came as no surprise as that happens often in practice.
It wasn’t until Sunday that Ratledge actually saw what transpired on the play, and it showed up in his Twitter feed, of all places. Bell’s 21-yard scoring run around right end against Ball State this past Saturday actually went viral for a moment -- at least in the social media circles frequented by the Bulldog Nation.
The sophomore split end from Houston made a couple of nifty outside cuts to avoid would-be tacklers on the modestly-blocked, right-tackle run. Then Bell showed a burst of speed to outrun the defensive pursuit to the right pylon on the play.
Color Ratledge impressed when he finally had a chance to admire the play.
“I didn’t know he made that cut,” said Ratledge, who as the Bulldogs’ starting right guard was otherwise occupied on the play. “The day after, I saw it on Twitter and I was, like, ‘whoa, that was a pretty good play.’ But, no, it doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen him make those type plays. He’s a great athlete.”
This much is certain: Bell very much looks like an SEC running back, both in running style and in physical stature. He’s listed on Georgia’s roster at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. He has that familiar low, center-of-gravity common among backs.
He may not be among Georgia’s fastest overall players in terms of speed, but he definitely possesses a quick-burst speed. That was on display during that scoring run Saturday, as it was last year when he played in all 15 games and finished with 20 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns.
But other than the number 86 jersey that he wore against Ball State, Bell looked incredibly like an SEC back and quite similar to some of the great ones that have helped galvanize Georgia’s long-standing reputation as “RBU.”
“So, we’ve seen him the past couple of weeks playing running back here and there make those kind of cuts in practice,” senior defensive back Tykee Smith said. “He’s always been able to get in and out of cuts like that and show he’s real explosive. He’s built like a running back, too.”
Said Ratledge: “I wasn’t surprised, no. He’s a tremendous athlete. He can make big plays wherever he is on the field.”
The question now is whether Bell will continue to be on the field at running back. Bell got three carries out of the backfield against Ball State, twice shifting into that position out of a receiver spot, and finished as Georgia’s second-leading rusher with 28 yards.
Bell has been working in the Bulldogs’ backfield for at least the last few weeks. Georgia started repping him there when depth issues reached a point of critical mass.
Senior starter Daijun Edwards was sidelined the last two weeks of preseason practice with an MCL (knee) sprain and has yet to play this season. The Bulldogs also lost sophomore Branson Robinson to a season-ending knee injury early in camp. Senior Kendall Milton remains well below 100 percent due to a chronic hamstring issue, though he played in the first two games and started last Saturday. Milton has averaged 4.4 yards on a team-high 16 carries.
True freshman Roderick Robinson is Georgia’s leading rusher with 88 yards. Junior walk-on Cash Jones is the only other running back to have gotten rushing attempts out of the backfield (nine yards on five carries).
Bell looks as dynamic carrying the football any of them.
This is not a surprise to Georgia’s coaches, of course. Bell was primarily a running back until his senior year at the Kinkaid School in Houston.
“This has been going on for a while; this is not something that’s been new,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “We’ve done this a lot with a lot of players. With our situation at running back, guys go back there and (learn) certain plays they can run.”
Smart, like everybody else, has been impressed by what he’s seen from Bell in the backfield. But he also has made it clear that Georgia recruited Bell to Athens to play receiver and that remains the intention.
Getting Edwards back for the SEC opener against South Carolina on Saturday – which appears a virtual certainty – could alleviate some of the need to Bell in the backfield. The 5-10, 201-pound senior is the Bulldogs’ best overall back and the leading returning rusher from last year’s team (140 carries, 797 yards, 7 TDs).
Edwards, who has 1,202 career yards, also has played in 39 games as a Georgia running back. So he is fully versed when it comes to all the responsibilities that come with playing the position, including pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Smart said not to sell Bell too short in that respect, either.
“He’s big enough, you know, 200-pounds-plus, to pick people up (in pass protection),” Smart said. “He’s physically tough. He strikes people. So, he can protect. He can do a lot of things from the backfield. And it’s something that we’re always going to have, you know, as an option or package. But a lot of it has to do with the health of our backs.”
As for Bell, he loves getting reps in the backfield. He calls running back his “first love.”
“I can never lose my old running-back instincts,” said Bell, who rushed for 655 yards and 14 touchdowns as a high school senior. “I prepared for it during the week as well. Very exciting.”
Others on the team are excited about it, too. Namely, quarterback Carson Beck.
“He brings a different element, especially being a wide receiver,” Beck said after Saturday’s game. “He runs hard, he’s really good with the ball in his hands. It also gives us an opportunity to match him up on a linebacker or a safety when, otherwise, he might be on a cornerback when he’s spread out wide. It’s almost like a Deebo Samuel-type deal, how the (San Francisco) 49ers use him. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”
Said Smart: “Dillon Bell has been a selfless player. He’s done what we have asked. He’s a really good wideout. This has been going on for a while.”