With Alabama looming, Georgia’s crucial running game hitting stride

Following a critical road win over a hot Kentucky team, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was confronted with a question about the youth of his offensive line.

There was a point in the Bulldogs’ win where the unit was comprised of three freshmen and two sophomores. “Do you have any nervousness about that?” a reporter queried.

As Smart processed the thought, he took a pronounced breath, squinted his eyes in an almost pained expression and shook his head.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

In the SEC, it is. And if the No. 5 Dawgs are to repeat as conference champions, they’ll have to rely heavily on that youth and a pair of emerging running backs — junior Elijah Holyfield and sophomore D’Andre Swift — to do what many teams find difficult-to-impossible: run on No. 1 Alabama.

There are three weeks left before the two meet in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1 in Atlanta, but between now and then Georgia’s progress in the running game will be of utmost importance in its chase for the College Football Playoff.

In the hours preceding the Crimson Tide’s beatdown of LSU on Saturday — a game in which they would hold the Tigers to a miniscule 12 rushing yards — Holyfield and Swift were running around, past and through a talented Kentucky defense.

The duo led the charge to a season-best 331-yard rushing performance, more than double what any other team had compiled against the Wildcats this season. Kentucky had allowed only one 100-yard rusher all season; Georgia had two against them.

On eight different occasions, the pair had a run of 10 yards or more.

“His cuts are a little bit different than mine. My cuts are a little bit different than his,” Holyfield said of Swift. “Sometimes he sees something that I didn’t see and sometimes I see something that he didn’t see. But I feel like we work together and complement each other. I feel like the defense… when one of us comes in, it’s such a different style that they don’t really know how to react to it.”

The aptly-named Swift, who Smart calls “a slasher” to Holyfield’s “bruiser,” showed why he’s worthy of such a label. On a 20-yard scoring run, he juked two of the ‘Cats best defenders — safety Mike Edwards and linebacker Josh Allen — and ran through the arm tackles of two more.

“It was unbelievable,” quarterback Jake Fromm said.

Swift later turned on the jets for an 83-yard scoring run and nobody had a real chance to catch him from behind.

Holyfield, meanwhile, found plenty of room between the tackles en route to a 115-yard performance. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior used his strength to drag Kash Daniel into the end zone on a short touchdown run, but also showed an ability to bounce it outside and outrun defenders. He and Swift (156 yards) both had their best days at an opportune time, and even drew some comparisons to their accomplished predecessors, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

Swift noted, however, that he and Holyfield “are trying to create our own one-two punch.”

“They didn’t get to be at the forefront of our offense because we had two really good backs last year but I saw it every day in practice, I saw it in spring practice two years ago,” Smart said of Swift and Holyfield. “Those guys have been workhorses. “They do a great job of leading our offense, protecting in the passing game, catching the ball out of the backfield, securing the ball, and I think they’ve gotten more confidence throughout the year.”

Swift is coming into his own now as he’s getting healthier. Having dealt with groin, ankle and foot injuries over the course of the season, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound sophomore said Saturday that he’s feeling better than he has all season.

The Dawgs also have in their back pocket another option in quarterback Justin Fields. The dual-threat signal caller, who was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2018 class, has played in all but one game this year and gives defenses more to think about with the read-option. Smart said he wants to get Fields into the game more (“He does good things and he doesn’t have to just run the ball”) because he’s progressing, but when the situation dictates it, he can get the job done on the ground.

“Justin brings a different element to the game,” Swift said. “He can pass, he can run. I think defenses are aware of that, so the [defensive] ends need to stay on their jobs.

“If they don’t respect it, then Justin’s just gonna run.”

Paving the way for those athletes is an offensive line that has taken many bumps and bruises in recent weeks. The aforementioned all-underclassmen group that saw the field against Kentucky was necessary because guard Cade Mays was starting in place of an injured Ben Cleveland — who fractured his left fibula vs. Missouri in September and hasn’t seen game action since — and senior center Lamont Gailliard left the Kentucky game with a first-quarter knee injury, opening the door for freshman Trey Hill at that spot.

Along with left tackle Andrew Thomas (sophomore), left guard Solomon Kindley (redshirt sophomore) and right tackle Isaiah Wilson (redshirt freshman), it left a young group out there. But they were stellar nonetheless.

“Our young players do a great job of just knowing what they need to do when their number’s called,” Swift said. “They go out there and perform.”

Mays left that game with an injury at one point, and in came senior Kendall Baker. Hill was thrust in at center despite practicing earlier in the week on defense as Smart and his staff search for depth there, too.

“A lot of these freshmen that are on our team that are highly regarded, talented players, they just keep working and they take on their roles… and they’re growing as players,” Smart said.

Despite the shuffling, the Bulldogs had 255 yards before contact on designed runs vs. Kentucky, tied for their second-most in the past five seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They averaged 5.4 yards per carry before first contact.

“I think what stood out is how big and how physical they were at offensive line, because they definitely got some movement and pushed us and bumped us out of some spots that we hadn’t had all year,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Smart said all the youth “makes me nervous they’re out there but I also like having good players out there.” He credited offensive line coach Sam Pittman with his ability to recruit and develop the talent.

“He’s got a good group of guys who are very versatile,” Smart said. “When you sign athletic linemen, sometimes they can play multiple positions and that allows your puzzle pieces to fall in place.”

Smart was optimistic Monday that Cleveland, Gailliard and Mays will be available this week vs. Auburn. If they can all get healthier over the next few weeks, it’ll give the Dawgs a better chance of finding success against Alabama.

Oh, and about those Crimson Tide? They reminded everybody last week what their reputation is truly built upon: suffocating defense. Georgia has seen an elite defense with high-level talent this season and didn’t fare well, losing 36-16 at LSU, rushing for a season-low 113 yards.

Alabama’s defensive front showed it will provide an even tougher challenge.

“Their technique is very good,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “Obviously they’re big. They’ve got a good scheme, they’ve been playing it for years. They sit there in a 3-4, with long arms, makes it hard to move ’em. Their linebackers can scheme-diagnose very well. Overall, just outstanding talent and they’re very well-coached.”

Georgia’s response following the LSU loss, with consecutive wins over top-15 foes Florida and Kentucky, and strong rushing performances in both, suggests this is a team on the rise.

Smart stopped short of saying his team is “ascending,” and instead noted that they’re getting better. Swift seemed to agree.

“I still think we haven’t scratched the surface of what we really could do,” he said. “This team has a tremendous amount of talent. The sky’s the limit for us. We’re just going to keep trying to get better.”

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