Georgia eyes SEC East title in Kirby Smart's second year

By JOHNATHAN BENTLEY, Eagle Sports Editor
Posted 7/11/17

HOOVER — Kirby Smart needed just two words to describe the moment he found out that senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were returning for the 2017 season — “pure elation.”

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Georgia eyes SEC East title in Kirby Smart's second year

Posted

HOOVER — Kirby Smart needed just two words to describe the moment he found out that senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were returning for the 2017 season — “pure elation.”

While the rest of the conference didn’t have the same reaction, the return of the two of the top running backs in the conference could be the difference between an eight-win season — like in 2016 — and a spot in the SEC Championship Game.

“I think Nick was the first guy to inform me, and I think maybe his decision weighed a little bit on the other guys that were deciding. I think he made (returning) OK to do,” said Smart at SEC Media Days Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover. Chubb and Michel combined for close to 2,000 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite hit-and-miss injuries throughout the season. Michel was limited to 152 carries for 840 yards and four touchdowns while Chubb picked up 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns on 224 carries, but saw his average yards per run drop from 8.1 to 5.0.

Both are poised to return to the top of the SEC leaderboard this year with last year’s injuries behind them. Smart said the two running backs feed off each other.

“They challenge each other every day in practice,” Smart said. “Both of them have been through pretty horrific injuries, and they’ve both come back from that, so they have a lot of similarities, even though they come from two different backgrounds and they have really different personalities.”

The duo will take some of the pressure off sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason, who completed 55 percent of his passes and finished seventh in the conference with 2,430 yards along with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

“He needs that help, and Jacob has been a guy that has openly admitted he’s super happy to have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel coming back. I hope Jacob can open up that part of the offense and be able to expand it and open some things for Nick and Sony. That’s one of the big things for them coming back, was to be able to open that offense up and let those guys have more space. We’re excited to have them back, and I know Jacob is,” Smart said.

Smart’s first season at Georgia had plenty of highs and lows. The Bulldogs knocked off Auburn and won the Liberty Bowl over TCU, but also dropped four of five games in the middle of the season, losing to rivals Tennessee and Florida. Georgia also dropped the regular-season finale to yet another rival — Georgia Tech.

The end result was an 8-5 record and a third-place finish in the SEC East.

Georgia will enter this season as one of the favorites, along with Florida, to win the SEC East in Smart’s second season, but the schedule provides plenty of hurdles.

After the opener against Appalachian State at home, the Bulldogs travel to Notre Dame in Week 2. Georgia also plays Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech on the road.

On the positive side, Smart returns 17 starters, including 10 on defense, from last year. Either way, Smart embraces the Bulldogs’ high expectations.

“When you come to the University of Georgia, the expectation is to win championships. That’s what we expect to do, and that’s the standard we’ll be held to,” Smart said.