- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Georgia’s propensity for producing elite running backs really is something.
Injuries and the NCAA rulebook foiled Todd Gurley’s run at the Heisman Trophy last season, but all that did was open the door to stud freshman Nick Chubb, who is garnering his own Heisman hype this year. But before Gurley was a solo act, he and Keith Marshall were making waves as freshmen. And before Gurley-Marshall, there was Isaiah Crowell rushing for 900 yards as a Freshman All-American. Before that, it was Knowshon Moreno and before that, Musa Smith.
There’s a through line there that goes beyond talent, the tutelage of coach Mark Richt and his staff, and the simple accessories of black and red. At Georgia, the least discussed factor of all when it comes to its success at the running back position is its offensive line.
“The goal is to create space for your backs,” Richt explained. “How do you do that? You do that by blocking. You do that not running into bad looks. And then when he does break into the open field, are you blocking there ... to turn that 20-yard run into a 60-yard run?”
The receivers and tight ends have to do their part, too, but it all starts up front.
The big uglies in the trenches are consistently productive, yet they’re consistently overlooked, even though year after year they pave the way for the stars who become the face of the program.
“See, that’s always something in the back of my mind,” said an animated Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “They never get the credit they deserve.
“All linemen, they grind. They work the hardest. If one of their ankles are hurt, they play injured and they don’t get the credit when it’s due.”
Jenkins, who passed up the NFL to return for his senior season, had a lot to say about the men he goes head-to-head with each day in practice.
“The line is a big reason, a big factor, into what plays into the running backs we’ve had,” he said. “They’re guys that will get nasty. They’ll fight and do anything for the running backs we have.
“They’re a group of guys that will go the extra mile and work their tails off and don’t get the recognition for it, and I respect them that much more that they don’t complain.”
That respect has come from more than a few “scuffles” with the likes of offensive tackle John Theus, who said the line prides itself as a group of “blue-collar guys.”
They’re not on the cover of the team’s media guide, a la Arkansas, and when they’re pushed to talk about themselves, there’s always a bit of deflection.
“When it comes down to it,” Theus said, “if we execute, if we open a hole, our backs will run for a long gain. Sometimes we don’t open a hole and they still run for a long ways. They make us look sometimes better than we are.”
That’s too modest, of course. Georgia’s line returns four of five starters this year and is considered to be among the best in the SEC.
You wouldn’t know it from all the talk about Chubb, but Theus, in particular, has NFL-caliber talent.
“He’s just a hulking red head,” Jenkins said. “You’re not going to beat him down. You can get him once, but the next play he’s going to come back ready for blood.”
With Theus as its anchor, there’s no telling what kind of holes Georgia’s backs will benefit from this season.
They won't be the subject of many headlines when Chubb starts doing his thing and the yards and touchdowns come in droves. But inside the locker room, teammates will know.
“They can be the best line in the country,” said wideout Malcolm Mitchell. “They have leadership. They have experience. And they work very hard.”