Should the Georgia Bulldogs and their 18 returning starters have the banner football season many expect, second-year head coach Kirby Smart knows exactly where to place a lot of the praise.
Between last November's disappointing loss to Georgia Tech and last December's victory over TCU in the Liberty Bowl, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter announced that each would be returning for his senior season. Smart said Tuesday at Southeastern Conference media days that it was Chubb who got the ball rolling.
"He was the first of those guys to decide, and I think that kind of swayed the masses," Smart explained. "His decision had an immediate impact on those other guys, and once Nick decided to stay, it obviously made me feel good, because I thought his commitment to the team and the program was special.
"The reasons he gave for staying were so unselfish. He wants things to be where they should be at Georgia, which is on top."
The Bulldogs have not been on top of the SEC since 2005, when Chubb was a fourth-grader and Smart was Georgia's running backs coach. Georgia hasn't even won the league's Eastern Division since 2012.
Chubb certainly has done his share in attempting to get the Bulldogs back among the league's elite, having rushed for a staggering 3,424 yards in just two and a half seasons. Only Herschel Walker has rushed for more yards in program history than Chubb, who insists it wasn't a difficult decision to return.
"I just never had my mind set on leaving," he said.
Chubb first told his mother, who he said already had a sense and knew the verdict. Smart was out recruiting when he received a call from the 5-foot-10, 228-pounder from Cedartown, and he was far less certain.
"I was holding on to every word he said," Smart recalled, "and he started out with, 'Coach, I'm kind of different. I decide things based on faith and different reasons than other people do. I'm not motivated by the money, and I want to come back.'
"At that point, I didn't want to say much because I didn't want to screw it up."
Chubb had compiled a streak of 13 consecutive 100-yard games when the Bulldogs traveled to Tennessee midway through the 2015 season. On the first play of the game against the Volunteers, he tried to extend a run but wound up suffering three torn ligaments.
He returned last season with a splash by rushing for 222 yards in a win over North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and wound up with 1,130 yards and averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Those are outstanding totals for most rushers, but Chubb had averaged 7.1 yards as a freshman and was averaging 8.1 as a sophomore before getting hurt.
"I thought I felt 100 percent last year because I was moving around," Chubb said, "but knowing what I know now after going through spring, I feel a lot better."
Georgia's 2017 schedule opens with a tricky test against Appalachian State followed by a first trip ever to Notre Dame, and the fifth game is a journey to Tennessee and the site of Chubb's gruesome setback.
"I'll be excited to go back," he said. "I kind of like stuff like that. I use it for motivation."
Chubb and Michel combined for 1,970 rushing yards last season and provide quite a comfort level for sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason, whom Smart has named as the starter going into this season. Chubb has played behind three primary quarterbacks - Hutson Mason, Greyson Lambert and Eason - during his time with the Bulldogs and provided an instant impact in the 2014 opener against Clemson with a 47-yard touchdown run during Georgia's 45-21 romp.
"That seems like such a long time ago, because so much has happened since then," Chubb said. "It's kind of crazy, because it was only three years ago. It does feel like it's been a long time."
Said junior linebacker Roquan Smith: "He has been here for a while. I remember when I was in high school and coming up to games and seeing him run all over people."
Smith added that he was not surprised by Chubb's decision because the Bulldogs are on the verge of "something special." Of course, Georgia now has to prove it is worthy of the preseason hype that has accompanied the program this offseason.
"I didn't come back for no reason," Chubb said. "We've got to work hard, grind and make it count."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
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