If competition improves the breed, Georgia's looking at a very well-bred RB corps in 2012.
Whatever weaknesses the Georgia Bulldogs have as they head into a pivotal 2012 season, the offensive skill positions won't be among them. Since Mark Richt arrived in Athens, the Dawgs have reloaded at the fullback position as well as any team in the country that still uses a fullback, while at tailback they've got Isaiah Crowell, perhaps the most talked-about recruit of Richt's tenure, returning for a sophomore season.
But if Crowell was the answer at running back, why'd the Dawgs go out and recruit not one but two blue-chip RBs in their 2012 signing class -- the No. 2 and No. 5 running back prospects in the nation according to Rivals? Whatever the motivation behind Richt's tailback hoarding for Dream Team Part II, one thing's for certain, and that thing is uncertainty: While Crowell will head into spring practice as the undisputed top RB on Georgia's roster, it's anyone's guess as to whether he'll still hold that title come Sept. 1.
Initially, at least, it looked like Crowell would live up to the considerable hype surrounding his nationally televised, bulldog-puppy-equipped commitment to Georgia on National Signing Day 2011. Crowell notched 60 yards in limited action against a top-five Boise State team in the '11 season opener, then reeled off three hundred-yard performances in his next four games. Then nagging injuries started popping up, limiting him to a total of 174 yards against Tennessee, Vandy and Florida. Then he (and seemingly the rest of Georgia's RB corps) got themselves suspended for the New Mexico State game. By the time he pulled himself out of the SEC title game against LSU, some of the fans in Georgia's section were frustrated enough to openly boo him for it.
So while Crowell's position atop the spring depth chart is fairly certain, it's not rock-solid. And while true freshman Keith Marshall, Rivals' No. 2 running back in the nation and an early UGA enrollee, will begin spring practice at the bottom of said depth chart, he's highly unlikely to stay there. It's not hard to see him leapfrogging Ken Malcome, who turned heads last spring but didn't record a rushing yard until the 10th game of the 2012 season. The coaches seem to have found a niche for Carlton Thomas, but it's not as an every-down back. And Richard Samuel, who's bounced from RB to LB and back like a ping-pong ball the last few years, may well be playing fullback by the time G-Day rolls around.
Thus if Marshall wants to mount a serious challenge to Crowell as a true freshman, the path is there. Richt didn't recruit Marshall just to be a motivating ploy for Crowell, much less a bench-warmer, so he's going to see the field one way or another. Whether he does so as a "thunder-and-lightning" complement to Crowell or as the No. 1 feature back on the roster is something Marshall and Crowell will have to hash out on the field.
Rookie prospects: Oh hey, did we mention that the Dawgs have yet another blue-chip RB arriving this summer? That would be North Carolina's Todd Gurley, who unexpectedly committed to the Dawgs barely a month after Marshall announced his own commitment. Arriving relatively late to the party means he may be a bit of a disadvantage in terms of his depth-chart position, but his bruising size will be an interesting complement to the speed and elusiveness of Crowell and Marshall, so don't assume anyone in this group is an automatic candidate for a redshirt.
The graduation of Bruce Figgins put a dent in the team's depth at what has historically been a very productive position for the Dawgs, but Ogletree saw playing time in three of the final four games of the regular season last year and looks fairly secure as the top fullback heading into spring. Both he and Royston have shown themselves to be capable as blockers; it remains to be seen whether they can shine as ball-carriers or receivers, both of which are roles for which fullbacks are frequently called upon in Mike Bobo's pro-style set.
Rookie prospects: At 6'2", 252, Blackshear's Quayvon Hicks already has the size to compete for playing time -- and as a guy who was occasionally used at tight end in high school, he's also got the varied skill set that Richt and Bobo have long considered so valuable for their fullbacks. But don't worry about his talents as a blocker: He also played defensive end, nose tackle and linebacker at Pierce County High School, so he's not the least bit afraid to hit anybody.