Several of Isaiah Crowell’s teammates say the running back who will step on the field when Georgia’s spring practices begin on March 20 isn’t the same one who lived through a turbulent freshman season.
“I’ve seen him mature from the day he got here and we had to drag him to workouts to now, where he’s the leader of his group during workouts,” junior tight end Arthur Lynch said Thursday. “He’s a kid that I think will make a lot of noise this year if he keeps doing what he’s doing. I’m extremely proud of the way he’s handled the pressure postseason and now this preseason moving up to spring and eventually the fall.”
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 “disrespectful.” He said Crowell has been “wrongly scrutinized” in his rookie season during which he was named the Associated Press SEC Freshman of the Year.
“Had Isaiah been a junior or senior, maybe he should grind through it,” Lynch said. “I 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’t think anybody understood the pain he was going through.”
Crowell turned 19 on Jan. 8, six days after the Bulldogs’ season ended.
“You ask these high expectations out of a kid who’s 18 years old; it’s such a different game than high school,” said Lynch, who has grown closer to Crowell as his “big brother” through the team’s “Brother’s Keepers” program in which an upperclassmen is assigned to a younger teammate. “Let’s face it; he had instant success and people were so demanding of him to be the savior, this idea of, ’Oh, the next Herschel (Walker).’ That’s just unfairly suited to him.”
Crowell wasn’t the next Herschel, but he will be the second-leading returning rusher in the SEC this season after Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy.
“I feel for him,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I 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’m excited to see what he can do this season.”
Georgia players who were made available to the media on Thursday say they are already excited by the Crowell they’ve seen this winter.
“I’ve seen that he’s grown and learned from the things that have happened throughout the season,” running back Richard Samuel said. “He’s working towards a goal instead of just going through the motions.”
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.
“It’s different,” Murray said, “especially as a running back, when maybe in high school you’re 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’s tough.”
Added Samuel: “It’s a different level. You have to do more and put in more from high school to college. Now he’s realizing what it takes to put in.”
For example: Georgia’s conditioning mat drills on Wednesday.
Murray went through a station with Crowell doing the “ladder drill” and came away impressed.
“He was working hard, he was running hard,” Murray said. “If he got sent back, he hustled back out of line and did it again. I definitely think he’s matured over the past season. It’s 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’s all dependant on you, you, you, you, you.”
Not so this year.
There’s new blood — 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.
“You can see he wants to get better,” Lynch said, “and he’s finally getting it.”
NOTES: The idea for receiver Malcolm Mitchell to also play cornerback was actually his, the sophomore said. “It’s something I want to do,” he said. “Not just something that just popped up. I actually approached them.” Mitchell said he went to coach Mark Richt’s 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. “When it came down to it, I thought I’d be satisfied with catching touchdowns, but the more I play the game, the more I want to do both,” he said. “I don’t want to come off the field. I will put in the work to make sure I can physically withstand it all.” … Samuel still considers himself a tailback first even if he could get a look at fullback this spring. “It’s not going to be a switch or anything,” he said. The senior said he wouldn’t mind playing fullback and “wherever they decide to play me, I’m going to give it my all.”