Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell has been arrested on a pair of felony weapons charges, the latest setback — way, way, way back — in a career only one season old and already pockmarked with disappointments. Crowell’s arrest raises a whole new set of questions about his future and his program’s future, and here’s our best guess at answering them:
Will Crowell ever play for Georgia again?
Unless some new pivotal detail regarding his arrest emerges, it would be a shock, one on par with Mark Richt leaving coaching to spend the rest his life riding with the Hell’s Angels. (Update: No such shock: Crowell has been dismissed from the team.)
If Crowell hadn’t already spent much of his freshman season in hot water, if he hadn’t by his own admission struggled with focus and maturity issues, if the arrest didn’t drive home the point that Crowell doesn’t seem to be learning from his mistakes, then maybe he could ask for one more last chance. He might have also been able to hang on by the proverbial thread if the charges were less serious, or didn’t involve a handgun — not every player would have been able to survive as many minor offenses as he has had. But even under Richt, maybe the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year would have.
But that’s a hypothetical. What’s not is that Crowell was a player already walking a tightrope and that the charges are that serious and that Richt has already come under plenty of fire — fairly or not — for his team’s less-than-stellar disciplinary record this offseason. Keeping Crowell around would unleash a media firestorm in the head coach’s direction that no program wants, and it’s not as if the oft-injured Crowell has proven himself reliable enough to guarantee the kind of on-field positives that would offset the overwhelming negatives.
We’ve been wrong before. But barring some sort of legal about-face, Crowell’s dismissal seems inevitable. (Update: it was.)
If When he doesn’t return, how badly will it hurt the Bulldogs’ chances of repeating in the SEC East?
Last summer, we declared Crowell “the most important true freshman in the SEC” and argued that the five-star recruit would need to live up to his ample hype to get the Bulldogs back in SEC contention, and get Richt off the hot seat. Surprise, surprise: productive as he was, Crowell’s suspensions and nagging injuries meant he fell well short of the hype, and the Dawgs wound up with 10 wins and a trip to Atlanta anyway. (We just said we’ve been wrong before, right?)
There are several reasons to think the Dawgs won’t need a star turn from Crowell this season, either. The primary reason the 2011 Dawgs got away with a starless, often plodding running game (one that finished 73rd in the FBS in yards-per-carry) was a monstrous top-5 defense that held 8 teams in a 10-game stretch to 17 points or fewer, all of them wins. That defense now returns nine starters and multiple All-American candidates; if it survives the spate of suspensions to start the season, it should again be one of the nation’s best.
Offensively, Georgia brings back Aaron Murray and their top six receivers from 2011, so there are few worries in the passing game. There are even several quality options at running back, with running back-turned-linebacker-turned-running back-turned-fullback Richard Samuel still in Athens, highly-regarded true freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley both capable of making an immediate impact, and redshirt sophomore Ken Malcome in the mix as well. If any unit on his team keeps Richt awake at night, it’s likely his green offensive line, not the guys running behind it — Crowell or no Crowell.
Which is all the more reason to expect Richt to give his troubled tailback the boot. Crowell might be missed from time to time, but after 2011, it’s hard to see those times occurring often enough to make or break Georgia’s season.
Who ultimately wins the starting running back position if when Crowell is dismissed?
If this was another program and another coach, we might bet on either Marshall or Gurley. Both backs were consensus four-star recruits out of their North Carolina high schools, with Richt beating out most of the country for Marshall’s signature and local favorites South Carolina and Clemson for Gurley’s. Each offers a slightly different look, with Marshall the faster and more elusive of the two and Gurley somewhat more powerful. Especially with Marshall enrolling in time for spring practice, it won’t be a shock if the two are platooning at the position by season’s end.
But this is Richt’s Georgia, which means two things: 1. Freshman running backs won’t be trusted right away; 2. They won’t live up to their advance billing. (More on this in a second.) Which is why the current favorite for the starting job may just be Samuel, who held the position at the start of 2011 and looked to have surpassed Crowell for good with a bulldozing performance vs. Florida. But that breakout came at the cost of ligament damage in his left ankle, leaving him on the shelf for the remainder of the regular season. If Samuel is back to full strength, he might not be just the Dawgs’ most experienced tailback — he could be their best tailback.
With Bruce Figgins graduated, moving Samuel to tailback (again) would open up a hole at fullback. But unless Malcome has taken a substantial step forward, we’re guessing Richt would prefer that to putting the position in the hands of a true freshman for a second straight year.
Is Georgia’s running back position cursed?
Knowshon Moreno would tell you it isn’t. But the fate of virtually every other purported future star at the position during Richt’s tenure suggests something funny is going on, something as funny as anything this side of the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God. Kregg Lumpkin? The definition of “meh.” Danny Ware? Great one day, gone the next. Washaun Ealey? Not bad on the field, not good off of it. Caleb King? The poor man’s Ealey. And Crowell is well on his way to joining that list of disappointments, if he hasn’t already.
The closest any recent Georgia back other than Moreno came to fulfilling his potential was four-star Thomas Brown, who piled up 1,025 yards from scrimmage as a true freshman in 2004 and led the team with 736 rushing yards the following season. But even his career fizzled out amid injuries and Moreno’s rise. The bottom line for the Bulldogs: No tailback other than Moreno has rushed for 900 yards or more since Musa Smith back in 2002.
Georgia likely won’t need to snap that streak to have another successful season (or even win an SEC championship) in 2012. But it’s a good thing, since with Crowell likely sidelined, it’s a streak we’d expect to live on into 2013.
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