One thing about 1980 season still irks Georgia’s Herschel Walker

Editor’s note: The year 2020 is big for anniversaries in Georgia college football. It’s the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Georgia Tech 11-0-1 season and share of a national title. It’s the 40th anniversary of 1980 Georgia’s 12-0 season and national title. The AJC will look back at both titles over the next several months. Today: Herschel Walker fondly remembers his offensive line.

Forty years later, there’s one thing that still ticks off Herschel Walker about his 1980 season at Georgia.

Keep in mind, there’s not much about which to be upset. Things went pretty well, you may recall. The Georgia Bulldogs won every game, including the last one over Notre Dame. That Sugar Bowl victory secured Georgia only its second consensus national championship in school history and certified Walker as a generational superstar.

From the time Walker took that handoff through a gargantuan hole at left tackle and plowed over Bill Bates for the first of two touchdowns in a comeback win over Tennessee in the season opener, he has been on a first-name basis with the world.

Herschel. Enough said.

More about that later. But it’s the subject of the blocking from which Walker benefited that raises this otherwise unflappable living legend’s ire. Look at the tape, he implores. He wasn’t the only reason Georgia’s ground game was otherworldly that season.

“People always say, ‘Ah, he’s so humble’ or whatever, but I had the best offensive line in college football. I’m not kidding,” Walker said in a recent interview with the AJC. “You look at that first play against Bill Bates. This is the honest truth, you’ll see a hole open up that, no lie, you could drive a Mack truck through. They parted the Red Sea. I went straight up the middle, and Bill Bates happened to be right there in my sights.”

It was at the point of that collision, where the future All-Pro safety Bates found himself on his backside and Walker trotting upright into the end zone, where the future Hall of Famer differentiated himself. Then came those toss sweeps that might’ve been 10- or 20-yard gains for mere mortals that instead turned into 70- and 80-yard touchdowns.

But, as Walker points out, rarely did he find himself fighting for yardage past the line of scrimmage.

“That’s one thing I’ve been mad about this whole time,” Walker said. “Why did Herschel Walker become an All-American and all that and not one of my offensive linemen did. I didn’t think that was right. Still don’t. Why did I become an All-American and not one of them voted for any of my offensive linemen?”

It is a bit perplexing in retrospect. Indeed, no Georgia offensive lineman appeared on any All-American team -- first-, second- or third-team. And there were a lot of All-American teams in those days.

In fact, the Bulldogs, who went 12-0 to finish No. 1, appear to be under-represented overall when it comes to All-American honors. In addition to Walker, only defensive back Scott Woerner and place-kicker Rex Robinson were consensus All-Americans. Defensive back Jeff Hipp received second-team honors from United Press International.

Otherwise, zilch.

Georgia is better represented on the 1980 All-SEC team. There you’ll find several Bulldogs tabbed for first-team honors, including offensive linemen Tim Morrison and Nat Hudson. But still there are only nine UGA players on an all-star squad that consisted of 32 members encompassing offense, defense and special teams.

Alas, the Bulldogs got the only honor that really matters, the championship trophy. And that wouldn’t have happened, players from that team believe, if not for that offensive line and some subtle moves made in the wake of that 16-15 victory over Tennessee.

Had to win that first one

Probably the hardest thing to believe about the 1980 season in retrospect is that Walker did not start that first game. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to play. That’s according to most accounts, including Walker’s.

“I wasn’t going to play,” Walker said. “Coach Dooley announced it before we got there, that he didn’t think I was going to play that game. We just got behind 15-nothing, and coach Cavan just kept saying to let me play, to ‘put me in, put me in.’”

Mike Cavan was Georgia’s running backs coach and the man most responsible for Walker playing for the Bulldogs that season. Ultimately, it was Cavan who recruited Walker out of Johnson County High. And it was Cavan, with fellow assistant coach Steve Greer, who took up residence in Wrightsville and outlasted Clemson, USC and a host of other schools to secure Walker’s signed letter-of-intent on Easter Sunday 1980, months past signing day.

Understandably, Cavan felt strongly about the talents of the young back he fought so long and hard to bring to campus. But it hadn’t yet been so obvious to everybody else.

When it came time to plan for the rare conference road opener, coach Vince Dooley decided that Walker would not start. But he insists that they always intended to get Walker into the game.

“Herschel had done little in preseason camp to distinguish himself from the other backs,” Dooley recalled. “I told (the coaching staff) that he wouldn’t start, but I had determined that he would play. I was trying to keep the pressure off of him.”

Indeed, Donnie McMickens, a senior, started the game. Carnie Norris, a sophomore, was second team. And Walker went to Knoxville as a third-stringer.

That would change in Georgia’s halftime locker room at Neyland Stadium, as the Bulldogs trailed 9-0. But nothing seemed amiss about the arrangement before the game.

“There was just so much that was unknown about him at the time,” said Buck Belue, the starting quarterback. “You could see that Herschel was big and fast. But he hadn’t really done all that much in practice. He was kind of tentative. And you have to remember, we had the best defense in football, and they were coming after him. We had Eddie ‘Meat Cleaver’ Weaver and Jimmy Payne up front, and even our guys had a hard time blocking them.”

Cavan has always theorized that, in addition to not being exposed to the intensity level of Georgia’s practices, Walker also knew he was going against teammates. Therefore, he didn’t approach every carry with the killer instinct he would later bring to games.

Also, being a freshman, Walker was having to absorb a lot.

“At practice, you’re learning a lot of things, and you’re going through a lot of things,” Walker said. “Sometimes people practice terrible, and they play absolutely incredible in games. Or, at practice you might look like Superman, and you play like a Barbie Doll. I really didn’t look good in practice that much, to be honest. People knew I could run, that I was fast, that I could do those things. But other things I might not have done that well.”

Contrary to legend, Walker didn’t sit that whole first half, then don his mythical cape and come off the bench, run over Bates for a touchdown and initiate a comeback. True to Dooley’s plan, Walker got some carries in the first half behind McMickens (four for minus-3 yards) and Norris (eight for 36).

Walker had six attempts for 25 yards. Also lost to legend was the fact that Walker grabbed somebody else’s helmet when he first went into the game. But he’d done enough well to initiate a fairly intense debate among Georgia’s coaches during intermission.

“I just remember at halftime Cavan going up to (offensive coordinator George) Haffner and saying, ‘We’ve got to go with Herschel, we’ve got to go with Herschel,’” Belue recalled. “And Haffner said, ‘OK, go tell coach Dooley.’ Neither of them wanted to be the one to tell Coach, but Cavan eventually did.”

Their concerns were unfounded. Dooley had come to the same conclusion.

“I had seen enough of him to determine that he should carry the load in the second half,” Dooley said in his book, “Tales from the 1980 Bulldogs.” “That was when I said, ‘He may not know where he’s going, but he’s going somewhere in a hurry.’”

Walker’s impact was not instantaneous. The Bulldogs fell behind 15-0 in the third quarter before getting on the scoreboard with a safety. His famous bulldozing run over Bates didn’t come until there was 1:03 remaining in the third quarter. His game-tying touchdown that resulted in Robinson’s game-winning extra point occurred at the 11:16 mark of the fourth quarter.

It’s that latter one that truly impressed Belue.

“The first one, Tennessee was shifting right before the snap and the defensive end didn’t shift down, so it was just wide-open,” Belue said. “The other one was a well-blocked sweep to the short side of the field. We just gashed them over there. And that really became a signature play for us.”

Walker’s final numbers against Tennessee -- 24 carries for 84 yards and two touchdowns -- paled in comparison with the ones he put up later, but the formula for a season and a career was established:

Give the ball to Herschel, play good defense and special teams, keep it close into the fourth quarter, find a way to win.

Walker finished the season with 1,766 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns, including his 150 yards and two touchdowns with a separated shoulder against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Bowl-game statistics weren’t included in season totals at the time, so officially Walker is credited with 1,616 yards and 15 TDs in 1980.

As for the players that played ahead of him that first Saturday, the four carries McMickens got in the first half against Tennessee were the last of his career. He became a special-teams specialist and had a good attitude throughout the season.

Norris would assume the role as Walker’s backup and was a very good one over that and the next two seasons. He gained 353 yards and averaged 6.3 per carry in 1980.

Walker, for one, doesn’t fault Dooley or the Georgia coaches for not starting him out of the gate. He sees the wisdom in it.

“That was good management of the team,” Walker said. “And coach Dooley knew once he had put me in, to keep me there. We became a real team after that, everybody working together.”

Another lineup change

Walker’s place atop the depth chart at tailback was not the only lineup change that took place following the Tennessee game. There also was a rather subtle shuffle along the offensive line that went almost unnoticed.

Hudson, a senior who had started the opener at left guard, moved to right tackle, where he remained for the rest of the season. Morrison, a senior, moved inside to right guard and junior Jim Blakewood moved from right guard to left guard.

Initiated by line coach Wayne McDuffie, all that would prove critical not just for the next several weeks during which Walker gained the notice of the nation, but most notably during one of the more important and memorable games of that season.

It was Hudson’s glancing block that saved Belue from a sack as he rolled to the right and eventually found Lindsay Scott open over the middle for a 93-yard, game-winning touchdown against Florida in Jacksonville.

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Moreover, though, it was Hudson who would team with tight ends Norris Brown and Clarence Kay to set the edge for the Bulldogs on their trademark toss sweep to the strong side. It was on such a play that the college football world would watch in awe as Walker raced for 76-yard touchdowns against Texas A&M and South Carolina and 72 yards against Florida.

Those possibilities were set up by McDuffie after that Tennessee game.

“That was a huge move and most people don’t even realize it happened,” Belue said. “We made that change in the next practice after the Tennessee game, that Monday, I think. At 270 pounds or so, Nat was the biggest, strongest linemen we had. He could hold up that edge against anybody we went against, and Carnie and Clarence Kay were good at setting that edge, too.”

Then Herschel would take care of the rest. That brings us back to Walker’s original point.

While we all know better, he insists that his was the easy part of the equation. He said that God blessed him with exceptional speed and good vision. So, he simply went to the side a play was designed to go, looked for the opening that would eventually materialize there and run through it as fast as he could.

What was almost never witnessed was Walker getting stopped for a loss. At worst the Bulldogs were looking at a gain of one to three yards. At best, he would take it the distance.

“If you go back and look at the years I played at the University of Georgia, you don’t see me getting hit that many times,” Walker said. “You certainly don’t see me getting hit in the backfield much at all. They gave me an opportunity to run beyond the line of scrimmage. You see an offensive line that is blocking its butt off.”

That run over Bates and Tennessee made him realize what he was capable of when he simply took what that crew of four seniors and a junior provided for him.

“So that was my 15 minutes of fame; God gave me that opportunity,” Walker said of that first touchdown run. “But I knew from now on I was going to have to work to continue doing what I was doing. And it encouraged my offensive linemen that they had to continue to work and together we could make some things happen.”

About those All-Americans

If any of those offensive linemen received All-American mention, it probably should’ve been Hudson or perhaps Morrison. Morrison ended up as a consensus All-SEC choice. and Hudson got a nod from UPI as a first-team, all-conference guard.

Belue and Walker were the only other first-team All-SEC players for Georgia. Defensive linemen Weaver and Payne joined Woerner and Hipp on the first-team defense.

“Herschel is certainly right that the 1980 Georgia offensive line was very worthy of having some All-America representation,” said Claude Felton, Georgia’s team publicist then and now. “Tim Morrison and Nat Hudson made first-team All-SEC, but overall, it was a blue-collar group with great chemistry who each did his job and together made up an exceptionally productive unit. There were a lot of contributors on that line during the year and, again, each was great at getting his job done.”

In addition to the regulars Morrison, Hudson, Blakewood, Jeff Harper and Hugh Nall, Wayne Radloff, Joe Happe and freshmen Jimmy Harper and Warren Gray were among those who rotated into games.

Belue said he believes Weaver and Payne are big reasons Georgia’s defensive line developed into such a formidable unit. The 1980 Bulldogs led the nation with 44 takeaways and allowed only 11.4 points per game.

“I think about those four seniors on the offensive line, and they were great, but Payne and Weaver were beating their butts in practice every week,” Belue said. “They were happy to go against somebody else on Saturday because they knew they weren’t going to be tougher than the guys they went against every day.”

That might explain some of Walker’s lack of flash in those preseason practices. He sure flashed in games.

“I went into that year thinking I’d be part of the team whenever I got the opportunity and when I do, I’m going to be the best running back I can be,” Walker said. “In college, you play different guys at different times, and I knew that. So, I never even thought about whether I was going to be the starter or when I was going to come in and play. I was just going to do my best when I did.”

Turns out, Walker arguably was the best of college running back of all time. Without question, he was the key piece in a national-championship season.

That team will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It had long been planned for the team to be recognized at halftime of Georgia’s home opener against East Tennessee State on Sept. 12. Now whether that game will be played is uncertain, along with all of them in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in some way, shape or form, that group plans to get together to commemorate one of the Bulldogs’ greatest seasons ever. Other teams might have been more dominant, but none was more confident about securing victory than that 1980 bunch.

“No one ever thought we were going to lose,” Walker said. “Even in the Florida game when we got down, everybody on that sideline knew we were going to win. It just became a mindset that we’re NOT going to lose.”

And they never did.