Left behind for Georgia’s trip to the Liberty Bowl last December, tailback Caleb King tuned in from his home in Gwinnett County for only some of the game.
“It was hard for me,” King said. “I watched a little bit of it, the beginning of the game. I couldn’t finish it because I wanted to be out there with the team. When the game was tied, I just turned the TV off. I just wanted to hear about it the next morning on the computers and the newspapers.”
King couldn’t travel with the team to Memphis – where the Bulldogs lost 10-6 to Central Florida – because he missed five academic appointments, a violation of Athletic Association policy. So he said he went home to work out and run.
It was another disappointment from a season of off-field issues for the program’s premier tailbacks, King and Washaun Ealey.
“That situation will never happen again,” King vowed recently after a spring practice. “I learned from it and got ready for the following season.”
This will be the final season in Athens for the fifth-year senior, who will be pressed for playing time by incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell. Crowell is rated by ESPN.com and Scout.com as the nation’s No. 1 tailback signee.
“That’s just a little more motivation to go in the weight room and (for) every practice,” King said. “I can’t wait until he comes here. I’m going to try and put him under my wings and tell him, ‘Everything I did, don’t do,’ pretty much.”
A lot of Georgia fans have pinned high hopes on Crowell. Some have lost faith in King and Ealey because of their missteps.
“A lot of people give them grief and they’ve really taken it to heart,” quarterback Aaron Murray said.
“They’ve worked extremely hard and I think they’re ready this season to really put Georgia back on the map when it comes to ‘Running Back University.’ ”
King was the highest-rated in-state signee in Georgia’s 2007 class – at No. 4 according to Rivals.com. The top two were Eric Berry, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, and Cam Newton, who could be a top-10 pick this year.
“I thought I was it and I really didn’t have to work,” King said. “I had to pretty much start over from the foundation. Now I’m working hard and getting ready for … a breakout season.”
King was second on the team in rushing last season with 430 yards and two touchdowns, down from 594 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009.
“I know I’m going to have a good season this year,” King said. “I believe the fans will come after that. That’s just extra motivation as well. Of course, you want people yelling your name and all that. In football, people love that. That’s the name of the game. I think that comes with the good plays and the long runs and the tough runs.”
More than midway through spring practice, King is quietly going about his business on the practice field. Coach Mark Richt said King “did a very nice job” in the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday.
“Caleb’s been practicing very well,” Richt said. “It seems like he’s really practicing with a really great focus and a physical attitude. He seems to be in pretty good condition. Every time he makes a run as of late, he pops up and sprints back to the huddle. He’s trying to play and practice with a lot of energy.”
The 5-foot-11, 223-pound King has added weight, but says he hasn’t’ lost his quickness and speed.
“Spring’s going well,” he said. “It’s always good when I don’t have no injury. That’s a plus.”
King missed two games last season with a high ankle sprain, but has been the most healthy of Georgia’s tailbacks this spring.
Ealey missed practice last week with a strained hamstring and may be sidelined again this week.
“That’s a little bit more work, but that’s work I want to have,” King said. “More reps is good reps. I’m taking advantage of all the reps I get and trying to make plays every time I get it.”
Besides missing the bowl game, King served a two-game suspension last October for failing to appear in court for a speeding ticket.
Ealey was suspended for the season opener after he was charged with hit-and-run of a parked vehicle and driving with a suspended license. Ealey was also suspended from team activites for fewer than three weeks this offseason for violating team rules before being reinstated.
King said Georgia’s staff isn’t keeping closer tabs on him to make sure he does what he’s supposed to do.
“It’s a self thing,” said King, who turned 23 in January. “I’m a grown man, been here a while. I’m on top of myself, so I can do the right things when the situation arises.”