- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Following the suspension of three tailbacks -- including leading rusher Isaiah Crowell -- and an injury to second-leading rusher Richard Samuel, Georgia is down to one scholarship tailback for this weekend's game against New Mexico State.
And that one varsity back -- 5-foot-6, 174-pound former walk-on Brandon Harton -- has only been on scholarship for a few months.
The suddenly shallow backfield creates a quandary for Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Who will run the ball without the suspended Crowell, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome -- who received one-game suspensions Tuesday for what sources confirmed was a failed drug test -- or Samuel available against New Mexico State?
"We're going to go with Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton, and [fullback Zander] Ogletree will fill in there, and then we might have a couple of surprises," Bobo said after Tuesday's practice. "We've just got to figure out what we do best and work hard at it this week."
Crowell, Thomas and Samuel have combined for 1,129 of the Bulldogs' 1,322 rushing yards -- the bulk of which came from Crowell, the star freshman who has 689 yards on 146 carries.
Behind them, cornerback Brandon Boykin (95 yards on five carries), quarterback Aaron Murray (47 yards on 48 attempts), Harton (33 yards on 11 carries) and Branden Smith (21 yards on three carries) are the Bulldogs' most productive rushers this year.
"We'll kind of see how it goes, but everybody else who resembles a running back will be competing," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Tuesday when asked who might play a bigger role in the backfield this weekend.
Harton has played in only one game this season -- totaling all 33 yards in mop-up duty during the Bulldogs' 59-0 thrashing of FCS-level Coastal Carolina. Aside from Harton, no other running back has carried the ball this season except for walk-on Wes Van Dyk, who rushed once for 1 yard against Coastal Carolina and is not available this week because of an injury.
Bobo said Harton -- who was not made available for post-practice interviews Tuesday -- would have been the third-string tailback in the opener against Boise State, but he suffered a severe ankle sprain before the game.
"We were planning on playing him then, and it just set him back for a few weeks and then he got behind, so I feel confident in him," Bobo said.
Karempelis, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound freshman walk-on, has not played a down at Georgia. He rushed for 5,756 yards in his career at Class A power Wesleyan in Norcross, Ga., scoring 93 career touchdowns.
"He showed lots of flashes in camp," Bobo said. "He's been on the scout team mostly, but today he got out there and ran behind those big boys, and they did a good job opening up holes for him."
Cornerbacks Boykin and Smith are candidates for increased playing time on offense, as both players have contributed, mostly in specialty packages. Bobo said cornerbacks Nick Marshall and Damian Swann, among others, also could carry the ball.
Boykin had an 80-yard touchdown run in the season-opening loss to Boise State on the first offensive play of his career. Smith has 21 rushing yards and a 26-yard catch against Vanderbilt this season, as well as touchdown runs of 61 and 52 yards in 2009 as a freshman.
The problem, Richt said, is that New Mexico State's pass-heavy offense often employs four-receiver sets. Boykin and Smith will have their hands full against an Aggies aerial attack that ranks 16th in the nation at 297.2 yards per game.
"Those guys will probably be on the field every single snap defensively, so we're going to need them to be fresh there," Richt said. "I don't know if there will be a huge difference in the amount of reps that they would get, but every week we spend time with them and have things ready to go.
"Sometimes we call them, sometimes we call a certain percentage of them. We might end up calling more of them in this game."
The good news for Georgia is that New Mexico State is one of the nation's worst teams at defending the run. The Aggies are allowing 214.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks 111th out of 120 FBS teams.
Still, the sudden loss of firepower will cause the Bulldogs to regroup and develop new ways to move the ball on the ground. Rather than scrap the running game for a week, Bobo said the unusual circumstances instead will cause the coaching staff to get creative in finding a solution to their temporary depth issues.
Georgia reported Tuesday that Crowell, Thomas and Malcome will each serve a one-game suspension this week. Meanwhile, Richt said Samuel is out for "a minimum of four weeks" after surgery on his severely sprained ankle Tuesday morning.
"We're still going to have to do things that we do within our offense," Bobo said. "These guys have been at the running back position all year and know what we're doing, but there might be some things that we add to get guys the football."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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