Many Georgia fans hoped top prospect Isaiah Crowell would seize control of the starting tailback spot early this fall.
After Friday’s announcement that senior Caleb King is academically ineligible — continuing the backfield attrition that started with Washaun Ealey’s transfer to Jacksonville State last month — Crowell may now become the starter by default.
King’s academic standing had been the subject of Internet speculation for months before Friday’s confirmation — on the day classes started for the university’s second short summer session — that he indeed is ineligible to compete this fall.
“It’s unfortunate Caleb will not be with us this season,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a university release. “We wish him the best in whatever he decides to do; however, we have to move forward and this will provide more opportunities for others to step up.”
UGA’s announcement said King “will consider the options available to him before making a decision on his future plans.”
King tweeted words of his support on Friday afternoon to his Georgia teammates, adding, “Some things (you) can’t control, and what seems bad right now might turn out good.”
But Friday’s announcement came as the latest bad news for a player who enrolled at Georgia with sky-high expectations not unlike what Crowell now faces.
King arrived in Athens as one of the nation’s most sought-after running back recruits, ranking as the top signee in the Bulldogs’ 2007 signing class. However, he only showed flashes of that promise in four seasons dotted with injuries, arrests and academic issues.
He redshirted in 2007 and played sparingly as a freshman behind star Knowshon Moreno in 2008, rushing for 247 yards and one touchdown.
King was expected to open the 2009 season as the Bulldogs’ starter, but sat out the first two games with injuries and didn’t make much of an impact until the final five games, when he rushed for 440 yards and six touchdowns.
The bright spot in that season-ending stretch — actually the shining moment in King’s college career to this point — came when he rushed 18 times for 166 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ upset of BCS bowl-bound Georgia Tech to conclude the regular season.
But while the Ealey-King combination and a veteran offensive line created optimism among Georgia fans entering the 2010 season, they produced more mediocrity once the games actually started.
King rushed for 430 yards on 80 carries, but lost five games to a variety of factors. He missed two games with a high-ankle sprain, two on suspension for failing to appear in traffic court because of a speeding ticket and then sat out the Liberty Bowl because he violated university policy by missing his fifth academic meeting.
Ealey’s career track was similar, as he came to Georgia as a top-tier recruit before a series of disciplinary and academic issues pushed him out of Richt’s good graces. After leading the Bulldogs with 811 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last fall, Ealey was suspended from all team activities in February and briefly reinstated before UGA announced in early May that he would transfer.
He landed at Football Championship Subdivision competitor Jacksonville State in early June.
Without King and Ealey, the Bulldogs’ top returning rusher is diminutive Carlton Thomas, who rushed for 272 yards last year — 125 of which came in blowout wins against Louisiana-Lafayette and Idaho State.
Redshirt freshman Ken Malcome, who averaged nearly 6 yards per carry in the Bulldogs’ spring game, was also in position to play a role out of the backfield before Friday’s announcement made it a near certainty.
But Ealey and King’s departures unquestionably put the most pressure on Crowell to immediately be the impact player his recruiting pedigree indicates he will become.
Scout.com, ESPN.com and 24/7 Sports all listed Crowell as the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit after he rushed for 1,721 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Carver High School in Columbus. And Richt hardly tempered those expectations on national signing day when he said on ESPN that he “wouldn’t be shocked to see him running that rock in the (Georgia) Dome against Boise State on the opening play if he does what he’s supposed to do.”
Richt’s fanciful prediction about Crowell in February became much more of a likelihood on Friday. The Bulldogs have few tailback alternatives to Crowell, who can alleviate legitimate concerns about his team’s running game by picking up the intricacies of Georgia’s offense this preseason.