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Crowell next in line of RB greats

ATHENS, Ga. -- Bryan McClendon understands Georgia's history at running back better than most.

He's the son of Willie McClendon, the 1978 Bulldogs' team captain who held the school's single-season rushing record until a guy named Herschel Walker came along. As a Bulldogs player in the mid-2000s, McClendon played alongside a couple of the most successful backs in program history, Musa Smith and Thomas Brown.

Now, as Georgia's running backs coach, McClendon works with one of the most sought-after running back recruits in school history, Isaiah Crowell, and he believes the freshman can rank among the best to carry the ball in Bulldogs history.

"The position in general here at the University of Georgia is always going to be a focal point. That position holds very high esteem just among college football, period," McClendon said. "So you've got to make sure you know that comes with being a running back here at Georgia.

"I think that all those guys, that's one reason that attracts those great players to play this position here. It's because they know there's something special about playing running back here at Georgia. I think [Crowell] fits that bill. He slides on in and has the potential to be one of the best that's ever come through here. But obviously that's going to take him progressing in a lot of ways, too."

Few programs beat Georgia when it comes to running back tradition, with names such as Walker, Garrison Hearst, Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi and Knowshon Moreno contributing to the Bulldogs' impressive legacy.

It might seem ridiculous or unfair to predict that a freshman with all of two college games under his belt might one day join that elite company, but Georgia's coaches have never shown any shortage of confidence in Crowell.

Coach Mark Richt predicted on the day Crowell signed with the Bulldogs that he might carry the ball on the opening play of this season. While that prediction didn't come true, Crowell wasted little time asserting himself.

He led the Bulldogs in rushing in each of the first two games -- winning SEC co-Freshman of the Week honors after running for 118 yards and scoring two touchdowns last week against South Carolina -- and will make his first career start Saturday against Coastal Carolina.

That was bad news for the Chanticleers' coaching staff, which must devise a plan to stop the Bulldogs' fabulous freshman.

"Good gracious, he might be one of the finest I've ever seen on film," Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett said.

It was only a matter of time before Crowell moved into the starting lineup, thanks to his versatility as a runner who can operate between the tackles or on the outside. Now that he's there, Richt believes the new role will only help Crowell build upon his performance against the Gamecocks.

"Now that he's in that role, a lot of guys will get an even greater sense of urgency in their preparation," Richt said. "I think he is a very special back. As the game was going on, I thought he was running well, but when I looked at the film, he really made some great runs."

Both of Crowell's touchdowns gave the Bulldogs the lead in a back-and-forth shootout, though they eventually lost 45-42 to the 10th-ranked Gamecocks. However, he also lost a fumble that South Carolina defensive back Stephon Gilmore returned to the Georgia 5-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"There is a bunch of ways we can improve on every aspect of the game, but I was very pleased with how he performed and his willingness to just go out there and do whatever it took," McClendon said. "He wanted to do whatever he could to scratch and claw for a win. That's him. That's something that has made him the player that he is right now and is going to keep him growing and filling out to that potential that he has."

For all the attention Crowell receives from fans, media and opponents, he doesn't give off much of a diva vibe. Like former Georgia receiver A.J. Green, Crowell is the unusual offensive skill player who seems to shy away from attention.

"My momma told me to just act like I've done it before and I just don't think [it's a] big deal," Crowell said after Tuesday's practice, while surrounded by reporters and cameras. "All I do is play football. I don't think it's a big deal."

The considerable interest clearly makes the Columbus, Ga., native uncomfortable, but he'd better learn to cope. His role in Georgia's offense figures only to expand -- offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said he would like to get Crowell at least 20 to 25 touches per game -- and Richt said Crowell is putting in the work to make sure that will be the case.

"I think he understands a lot more about what it takes, and I think he's even more motivated to work even harder in practice and to make sure he takes care of every little detail," Richt said. "Not to say that he wasn't, but just he's a freshman and until you play in an SEC game like that, you really don't get it fully. I saw more urgency on his part, even in yesterday's practice."

Georgia has consistently recruited top-tier talent throughout Richt's tenure, but its top running back signees in that decade have not all become the sure things their recruiting pedigrees might have indicated.

Moreno's on-field performance exceeded all recruiting expectations, but other marquee signees, such Kregg Lumpkin, Caleb King and Washaun Ealey, never fulfilled their potential because of injuries, academic problems or disciplinary issues.

Injuries are impossible to control, but Crowell is working to control what he can.

McClendon said he wants Crowell to become a dominant blocker, "and he's making great strides in order to be that," he said. Quarterback Aaron Murray has witnessed firsthand the effort the freshman has put into picking up his offensive responsibilities and sharpening his skills.

"I think he knows what he's doing. I think as a freshman, that's the biggest thing," Murray said. "They're not going to put you out there, I don't care how talented you are. If you don't know what you're doing, then it doesn't matter. He has worked harder learning the playbook, and between his skill and his knowledge, it's showing right now."

"He seems excited about what the future holds," Richt agreed.

The same can be said for Georgia's fan base, which pinned its preseason hopes on a freshman running back and is already witnessing why so many big schools sought Crowell's services.

Crowell has only begun to determine his eventual legacy as a Bulldog, but with a team-high 178 yards and an average of 5.7 yards per carry thus far, he's off to a rousing start.

And judging by his coaches' willingness to contribute to the Crowell hype, the freshman will receive every opportunity to prove that their faith is justified.

Highly ranked backs of the Richt era

Georgia has signed its share of four- and five-star running backs since Mark Richt arrived in 2001. Because of a variety of factors, some of them never panned out at Georgia, while others -- most notably NFL first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno -- went on to tremendous success.

Here is a rundown of the running back prospects Georgia signed under Richt whom at least one scouting service ranked among the top 10 players at the position that year, with the year each signed:

Kregg Lumpkin, 2003
Lumpkin was considered one of the nation's top overall recruits, ranking as both Scout.com and Rivals.com's No. 2 running back prospect when he signed with Georgia. He lost a significant portion of his career to injuries. He claimed the starting tailback job by end of his freshman season but suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of preseason camp in 2004. Lumpkin returned to lead the Bulldogs in rushing in 2006, but he suffered a pair of injuries in 2007 that kept him from appearing in seven games. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2008 and is now in his second season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Thomas Brown, 2004
Brown never seemed to have the spotlight to himself in Georgia's backfield, sharing time with players such as Lumpkin, Danny Ware and Knowshon Moreno, but he ranks among Georgia's steadiest backs under Richt. He led the team in rushing as a true freshman in 2004 and did so again in 2005 before losing half of his junior year to a season-ending knee injury. Brown returned in 2007, served as an offensive team captain and formed a lethal rushing duo with Moreno. The two combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns that year. After brief stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns, Brown now serves as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at his alma mater.

Knowshon Moreno, 2006
Richt has joked for several years about his error in judgment when the Bulldogs redshirted the brash running back recruit from New Jersey in 2006 because of a crowded backfield. Moreno stormed onto the scene the next year and gave Georgia its two most prolific rushing seasons since Richt has been coach. Moreno took the lead in a two-man rushing attack when Thomas Brown suffered a broken collarbone midway through the 2007 season and completed the season with 1,334 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He used an array of acrobatic moves and powerful running to rush for 1,400 yards and 16 scores as a redshirt sophomore, which was all he needed to convince the Denver Broncos to make him the first running back selected in the 2009 NFL draft.

Caleb King, 2007
An immensely popular YouTube video posted before national signing day 2007 asked "Is Caleb King the next Herschel Walker?" That's the kind of expectations that surrounded King after his junior season at Parkview High School before he transferred to Greater Atlanta Christian for his senior year. King suffered a broken leg that year and never lived up to his junior-year hype once he arrived in Athens. King redshirted in 2007 and played sparingly as Moreno's backup in 2008. He seemed to take a step in the right direction in 2009, particularly in a 166-yard effort against Georgia Tech, but struggled with injuries and disciplinary problems as a junior in 2010, rushing for only 430 yards. King was slated to be the mentor to incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell this fall, but was declared academically ineligible and instead entered the NFL's supplemental draft. He went undrafted and is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad.

Richard Samuel, 2008
A consensus five-star prospect, the recruiting services were split on whether Samuel projected better as an offensive or defensive player in college. Unfortunately his coaches seemed to have the same problem. Samuel completed high school early and enrolled in January 2008 as a wide-eyed 16-year-old. He backed up Moreno at tailback that year in hopes of competing for the starting spot in 2009 should Moreno leave school early. That was the plan in 2009, but Samuel struggled after opening the season as the starter. He was a non-factor by the end of the year and moved to linebacker the following year. After taking a redshirt in 2010, Samuel was expected to contribute on defense this season before Caleb King's departure this summer created depth issues at running back. Samuel agreed to return to the position and started the first two games, rushing for 55 yards before giving way to freshman Isaiah Crowell for this Saturday's game against Coastal Carolina.

Washaun Ealey, 2009
Nobody will ever doubt that Ealey possessed star potential. It's perfectly reasonable to doubt whether he possessed the desire to fulfill that potential, however. After appearing for the first time five games into the 2009 season and sparking Georgia's flat running game against LSU, Ealey teased Bulldogs fans with occasional moments of brilliance. He rushed for 183 yards in an upset win against Georgia Tech. He scored five touchdowns against Kentucky. But he also failed to do the little things that matter, like hold onto the football, stay out of jail, and tend to his academic duties. Ealey left the program in the summer and is now playing for Jacksonville State.

Isaiah Crowell, 2011
Of course the jury is still out on Crowell, who is all of two games into his college career. Widely viewed as the nation's top running back prospect, Crowell came to Georgia with as much hype as any player in recent history. After gaining 60 yards in his college debut against Boise State, Crowell had his coming-out party came the following week, when he rushed for 118 yards, caught two passes for 40 yards, and scored a pair of touchdowns. His coaches aren't afraid to heap immense expectations on Crowell's shoulders, but he certainly seems to have the tools to rank among the Bulldogs' best backs under Richt should he remain healthy.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.