Next Herschel? Georgia giddy over freshman Crowell
One teammate remembers a scrimmage. There was Isaiah Crowell, leaping over a defender near the sideline, somehow managing to stay inbounds, then bursting ahead for a few extra yards.
Another talks of a goal-line drill. That's when Crowell seemed to be stopped short of the end zone, only to break not one but two tackles before diving in.
''He's every bit as good as advertised,'' Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. ''Every day in practice, this kid turns people's heads. Everyone is like, 'Wow!' at some of the things he does.''
Now, it's time to see what the heralded freshman can do against an actual opponent.
Crowell might start his first college game for the 19th-ranked Bulldogs. He'll surely get plenty of carries Saturday night in a crucial opener against No. 5 Boise State. And, say this, he's certainly not lacking for confidence.
''I don't think it's going to be that tough a transition for me,'' Crowell said. ''I believe I can play with some of the best.''
He endeared himself to Georgia fans from the very first day, breaking out an actual bulldog to proclaim he was signing with his home-state team. They'll really be grateful if he can lead a resurgence of the red and black, which is coming off its first losing season since 1996.
Murray has no doubt that Crowell's debut against one of the country's most successful programs will be the start of something big.
''He's going to show everyone this year,'' the quarterback said. ''Jaws are going to hit the ground.''
Hyping the guy who runs the ball is nothing new at Georgia. Three decades ago, Herschel Walker became one of the greatest backs in college football history, a stunning mix of power and speed. Ever since then, the Bulldogs have been trying to find their next No. 34.
Some successors have carved out quite a legacy of their own, from Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis to Musa Smith and Knowshon Moreno. Others have failed to live up to expectations, their careers doomed by injuries, bad decisions off the field or simply because they weren't as good as they looked in high school.
Now, it's Crowell's turn.
So far, the most challenging thing about college has been the off-the-field demands. Just this week, he dallied a little too long in the locker room after practice, had to rush to a mandatory tutoring session, then had to return to the athletic building after 10 p.m. for a media commitment he had missed.
''It's been overwhelming,'' Crowell said. ''In high school, if you didn't do something, there wasn't going to be too much said about it. If you didn't go to treatment, nobody cared. Sometimes, I didn't even go to class, and nobody really said anything about it. But here, anytime you're one minute late, somebody's going to know about it. Time management has been the toughest thing for me.''
The Georgia coaches find themselves walking that difficult line between whipping up the fan base about how good Crowell can be - and, by extension, the team - but not putting so much on the young man's shoulders that he can't possibly live up to the hoopla.
''With a marquee tailback at any school, there's a lot of expectations,'' offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. ''Especially at a place like Georgia that's had a lot of great tailbacks, and had one who is arguably the best to ever play the game. Everybody is still waiting for that guy.''
That's not fair, of course - to Crowell, or all those other running backs who came along after Walker. There's a good chance that Georgia will never have another back with that sort of talent, skill and dedication, someone who runs over an NFL-bound defensive back in his very first game, as Walker did to Bill Bates in 1980.
Bobo hopes that everyone - from the fans to the media to Crowell's own teammates - will show at least a modicum of patience, allow Crowell to grow into the best player HE can be, not another version of Herschel.
''Is it going to happen in game one? I don't know,'' Bobo said. ''But I think he's going to be a great player for us. Just let the guy play football and we'll see how he develops.''
Good luck with that.
The rest of the team has clearly latched on to an 18-year-old freshman who boldly chose to wear No. 1 before he ever played a down. They see glimpses of the star power so desperately needed between the hedges, the sort of player who can restore the luster this program had not so long ago. Georgia won a pair of Southeastern Conference titles in Mark Richt's first five seasons as coach, finished No. 2 in the rankings after the 2007 season, started out the next season ranked No. 1.
It's been a steady slide since then. Schools such as Florida, Alabama, LSU and Auburn have risen to the top of the SEC, winning national titles along the way. Georgia has become a has-been, winning just seven of its last 16 conference games and going 6-7 a season ago, culminating with an ugly, embarrassing loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.
In a sense, Crowell's goals are perfectly in sync with the rest of the program. He wants to be one of the nation's top players. If he turns out to be, his team might be playing for a championship of some sort, and his coach will surely have a much better chance to staying employed.
It's a lot to put on one teenager. Richt knows that.
''During the recruiting process, he pointed to this game as the game where he could get an opportunity to show what he can do, to show the college football world what he's got,'' the head Bulldog said. ''Once he got here, he quickly understood that this is not about Isaiah Crowell. It's about Georgia. He's very mindful of his teammates. He knows he's got a lot to learn.''
Then, Richt added, ''He just really wants to do whatever he can to help the team win.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963