By the numbers
The SEC’s top-five returning rushers for 2016:
1. LSU’s Leonard Fournette 1,953
2. Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd 1,288
3. Georgia’s Sony Michel 1,161
4. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb 1,152
5. Kentucky’s Stanley Williams 855
ATHENS, Ga. — Sony Michel rushed for 1,161 yards last season as a sophomore and was voted by his Georgia teammates in December as the team's offensive most valuable player.
Given the current dearth of ball carriers for the Bulldogs, it's hard to imagine a more important player on the roster.
"I'm getting a lot of work," Michel said. "We're down on backs, so it's about just going out there and doing what I can for the team. If it's to take a lot of reps, then I will take a lot of reps."
The 5-foot-11, 212-pound junior from Plantation, Fla., unexpectedly became Georgia's offensive focus in early October, when starting tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb suffered ligament damage on the first play from scrimmage against Tennessee. Michel came in and rushed for 145 yards in the 38-31 loss to the Volunteers, and he added 100-yard games against Kentucky (165), Georgia Southern (132) and Georgia Tech (149).
Chubb is doing some straight-ahead running in practice this spring but will not participate in contact drills. Brendan Douglas is limited as he recovers from wrist surgery, while A.J. Turman recently decided to transfer.
That leaves Michel and unheralded redshirt freshman Tae Crowder as Georgia's healthy scholarship tailback contingent for now.
Michel is certainly pulling for Chubb, a fellow junior who rushed for a staggering 745 yards through Georgia's first five games a year ago. For the time being, though, he is the proven commodity in the backfield as the Bulldogs conduct a quarterback competition for a second straight year.
"We've just got to wait until the coaches make their decisions," Michel said. "That's when everybody will know. We learned last year to just sit back and be patient."
The week before Chubb's injury in Neyland Stadium, the Bulldogs fell 38-10 at home to Alabama. Michel had a respectable nine carries for 53 yards against a Crimson Tide defense coordinated by current Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
Chubb had 20 carries for 146 yards against Alabama, collecting half of that total on a touchdown run late in the third quarter, but Smart was impressed by what Michel did that afternoon and since.
"At that time, he was used more as a specialty out of the backfield," Smart said. "We didn't get to see him much, and when I saw him, he was more of a changeup pitcher to Nick. You had the thunder, and you had Sony coming in there with quickness and lightning.
"I know throughout the year he took on a much greater workload. He was able to handle that, which was a great blessing."
Michel is practicing for a third position coach in as many springs, having worked under Bryan McClendon as a freshman, Thomas Brown last season and now Dell McGee. There is the uncertainty at quarterback, and the slogan of "Finish the Drill" under former head coach Mark Richt has been replaced by "Attack the Day" under Smart.
Smart also has introduced the idea of "being comfortable being uncomfortable."
"It's been tough," Michel said. "I don't think anybody on the team is comfortable right now, because everybody is going out there and competing for positions. Nobody can say that a job is theirs or a given, because they won't always have the job tomorrow."
It remains to be seen whether Michel will shoulder the load again this season or reunite with Chubb as an effective tandem. The worst-case scenario is that it's just Michel, but Michel proved last year that wasn't so bad.
"We're hoping Sony is up to the challenge again," Smart said. "Obviously we want Nick back. We want every healthy back we can get. I do believe Sony grew as a runner because more was demanded of him, so he grew as a runner, and he was not just a specialty, free-release guy doing angle routes out of the backfield.
"He became more diversified, which is important."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.