Several of Isaiah Crowell‚Äôs teammates say the running back who will step on the field when Georgia‚Äôs spring practices begin on March 20 isn‚Äôt the same one who lived through a turbulent freshman season.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve seen him mature from the day he got here and we had to drag him to workouts to now, where he‚Äôs the leader of his group during workouts,‚Äù junior tight end Arthur Lynch said Thursday. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a kid that I think will make a lot of noise this year if he keeps doing what he‚Äôs doing. I‚Äôm extremely proud of the way he‚Äôs handled the pressure postseason and now this preseason moving up to spring and eventually the fall.‚Äù
Crowell was in the spotlight before he arrived from Columbus in June. The heralded recruit was looked at as the player who would pump new life into a floundering running game on a team coming off a losing season.
He rushed for 850 yards and five touchdowns, but had off-field issues (he was suspended for one game and for a quarter of another), and many fans wanted him to stay on the field and fight through nagging injuries.
Lynch spent several minutes Thursday defending Crowell, who was booed by some Georgia fans in the SEC championship loss to LSU when he left the game with an ankle injury.
That, Lynch said, was ‚Äúdisrespectful.‚Äù He said Crowell has been ‚Äúwrongly scrutinized‚Äù in his rookie season during which he was named the Associated Press SEC Freshman of the Year.
‚ÄúHad Isaiah been a junior or senior, maybe he should grind through it,‚Äù Lynch said. ‚ÄúI thought he grinded through it enough. He sat out one game and he tried to play in that SEC championship game when we needed him. … I don‚Äôt think anybody understood the pain he was going through.‚Äù
Crowell turned 19 on Jan. 8, six days after the Bulldogs‚Äô season ended.
‚ÄúYou ask these high expectations out of a kid who‚Äôs 18 years old; it‚Äôs such a different game than high school,‚Äù said Lynch, who has grown closer to Crowell as his ‚Äúbig brother‚Äù through the team‚Äôs ‚ÄúBrother‚Äôs Keepers‚Äù program in which an upperclassmen is assigned to a younger teammate. ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs face it; he had instant success and people were so demanding of him to be the savior, this idea of, ‚ÄôOh, the next Herschel (Walker).‚Äô That‚Äôs just unfairly suited to him.‚Äù
Crowell wasn‚Äôt the next Herschel, but he will be the second-leading returning rusher in the SEC this season after Vanderbilt‚Äôs Zac Stacy.
‚ÄúI feel for him,‚Äù quarterback Aaron Murray said. ‚ÄúI think he definitely learned from it. I think he still had a great year. He still had over 800 yards, which is still pretty impressive for a freshman. I‚Äôm excited to see what he can do this season.‚Äù
Georgia players who were made available to the media on Thursday say they are already excited by the Crowell they‚Äôve seen this winter.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve seen that he‚Äôs grown and learned from the things that have happened throughout the season,‚Äù running back Richard Samuel said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs working towards a goal instead of just going through the motions.‚Äù
Things that he could get away with while piling up the yards and touchdowns in high school at Carver-Columbus might not have been enough at Georgia, players said.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs different,‚Äù Murray said, ‚Äúespecially as a running back, when maybe in high school you‚Äôre just outrunning everyone and running people over, and you come to SEC football and these guys are coming at you every single play, taking you out by your knees, your ankles; it‚Äôs tough.‚Äù
Added Samuel: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a different level. You have to do more and put in more from high school to college. Now he‚Äôs realizing what it takes to put in.‚Äù
For example: Georgia‚Äôs conditioning mat drills on Wednesday.
Murray went through a station with Crowell doing the ‚Äúladder drill‚Äù and came away impressed.
‚ÄúHe was working hard, he was running hard,‚Äù Murray said. ‚ÄúIf he got sent back, he hustled back out of line and did it again. I definitely think he‚Äôs matured over the past season. It‚Äôs very tough to come in as a freshman and have so much put on your plate. The whole Georgia football team is on you, it‚Äôs all dependant on you, you, you, you, you.‚Äù
Not so this year.
There‚Äôs new blood ‚Äî highly-regarded tailback signees Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, newcomers whom Crowell has said he would welcome.
Murray said the competition has lit a fire under Crowell.
‚ÄúYou can see he wants to get better,‚Äù Lynch said, ‚Äúand he‚Äôs finally getting it.‚Äù
NOTES: The idea for receiver Malcolm Mitchell to also play cornerback was actually his, the sophomore said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs something I want to do,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúNot just something that just popped up. I actually approached them.‚Äù Mitchell said he went to coach Mark Richt‚Äôs office in January to talk to him about playing defense also. The dismissals later of cornerbacks Chris Sanders and Nick Marshall made that idea more of a necessity. Alabama recruited him from Valdosta to play cornerback. Georgia gave him the option of playing both. ‚ÄúWhen it came down to it, I thought I‚Äôd be satisfied with catching touchdowns, but the more I play the game, the more I want to do both,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt want to come off the field. I will put in the work to make sure I can physically withstand it all.‚Äù … Samuel still considers himself a tailback first even if he could get a look at fullback this spring. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not going to be a switch or anything,‚Äù he said. The senior said he wouldn‚Äôt mind playing fullback and ‚Äúwherever they decide to play me, I‚Äôm going to give it my all.‚Äù