No. 1 Georgia’s Zamir White quietly having a Zeus-like season

ATHENS – It’s not blatantly evident, but Georgia’s Zamir White is having a very good junior season for the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs.

It certainly won’t blow anyone away that he ranks 10th among SEC backs in rushing at 59 yards per game. Meanwhile, his per-carry average of 4.99 yards is lowest among the league’s top 14 running backs.

But the Bulldogs’ opponents sure are finding it hard to bring down White when they need to get the ball back late in games. It’s in the fourth quarter of that White’s best work has been done. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry in the final period.

White’s late-game knack was on display again Saturday. With 7:11 remaining in the game, White broke a tackle in the Georgia backfield and kept on trucking for a 10-yard score in a 34-10 win Auburn. The yards after contact on the play – 12.5 yards.

White also put the nail in Arkansas’ coffin with a 15-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run. Georgia fans may recall White nearly being knocked off his feet inside the 10. But he kept his balance until could dive through the plan of the goal line.

It’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs tend to insert White in the offense when the opposing end zone comes into focus. He leads the team with six touchdowns, which is tied for second among SEC backs. Missouri’s Tyler Badie leads the league with eight.

“He is an extremely physical runner,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “He is 100% (healthy) for probably the first time where he feels really good. He had an incredible offseason after the interruption of COVID, coming off a knee (injury). You feel like he is hitting stride, where his acceleration, his burst, his pass protection, his breaking of tackles, his yards-after-contact have been really good.”

Here’s another key stat: zero fumbles.

The Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 SEC) hope White is on the field helping them bleed the clock Saturday against Kentucky. The No. 11-ranked Wildcats (6-0, 4-0) rank sixth in the league against the run, giving up just 111 yards per game. The teams face off at Sanford Stadium at 3:30 p.m. (CBS).

White’s work is remarkably reminiscent of the Bulldogs’ overall ground game this season. You won’t find Georgia among the top rushing teams in the SEC. In fact, the Bulldogs barely make the cut for the upper half of the league.

At the halfway point of the season, the Bulldogs are halfway up the conference rankings in rushing. They rank seventh in the 14-team league at 197.2 yards per game. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in a game this season.

But Georgia’s opponents thus far would likely take issue with the notion that the Bulldogs are mediocre when it comes to running the football. Just ask Auburn, which found itself unable to get the ball back from the Bulldogs as it tried to mount a desperation comeback late in the game Saturday.

Before White scored on his 10-yard run, the Bulldogs kept the ball for 5:46 on a 10-play, 64 yard drive that featured nothing but runs, most of them between the tackles.

Georgia would get the ball again with outcome essentially intact. Again, the Bulldogs would possess the football for 4:25. They ran the ball on nine consecutive plays before quarterback Stetson Bennett threw an incompletion on fourth-and-3 at the Auburn 35. At that point, only 38 seconds remained in the game.

Of course, whatever Georgia gets out of its run game has as much to do with the offensive line as it does the running backs. The general offensive formula this season has been for the Bulldogs to attack with explosive play-action plays early, then move to the ground game after halftime. They’ve outscored opponents 147-9 in the first half, then 56-7 in the third quarter. Seventeen of the opposition’s 33 points this season have come against the defense’s backups in the fourth quarter.

“Once the second half came around, we started rolling on them,” Bennett said of Auburn. “We just leaned on them. That’s what we do. Our O-line is just so strong, so tough, and are backs are the best in the country.”

The difference in Georgia and most SEC teams is it doesn’t really have a feature back. Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez leads the SEC with 759 yards on 120 carries. The league’s top six rushers all have 73 or carries.

White, a former 5-star prospect and No. 1-rated running back out of Laurinburg, N.C., has started five of the six games this season and all 10 last season. But the Bulldogs’ famously share the workload in the backfield.

White has the most carries with 71, but senior James Cook has 41 and has a team-best 6.0 yards-per-carry average, and sophomore Kendall Milton is next with 45 totes and a 4.7-yard average. Kenny McIntosh, who is coming off an injury, has 29 rushing attempts, leads the backs with six receptions and also handles kick returns.

“I feel good about our backs,” Smart said. “We’ve got good depth there. I’ve got a lot of trust in all those guys, including Daijun (Edwards).”

Typically, Georgia goes with the hot hand early in games. Against Arkansas, it was Cook who got the ground game going. A senior from Miami, Cook had 87 yards on 12 carries in the 37-0 victory before stepping aside for White late.

“Those two guys are the heart and soul of our offense,” Smart said of Cook and White. “How they go is sometimes how we go. And there’s not always a bunch of big holes for them. They manufacture runs and keep us on schedule. Their leadership, more than their play, has been a key component to this team.”

At the very least, Georgia usually has several fresh backs to choose from at the end of games. If there is any doubt about the outcome, the Bulldogs tend to choose White.

That was the case in Georgia’s 10-3 season-opening win over Clemson. The Bulldogs ran the ball on their final 10 plays of the game, using up the final 4:49 of the clock. White got the ball on six of the nine plays before quarterback JT Daniels kneeled for a 2-yard loss in victory formation from the Clemson 12.

There is, of course, nothing better in football than victory formation.

“We’re winning the line of scrimmage battle, and that is so much fun,” Bennett said.