“I don’t know how good he was before he got hurt,” said Smart, Georgia’s first-year running backs coach. “There was a while I thought he had reached his peak, and I just thought that’s how good he was.”
Lumpkin, who missed all of 2004 due to a knee injury, only had 116 yards in the first eight games of this season. Then came the week before the Auburn game.
“Leading into that week, he really started showing flashes,” Smart said. “He showed some really good things. He looked like he had a burst. Coach (Mike) Bobo and Coach (Mark) Richt even saw it and said, ‘Dang, Lump looks better.’”
The transformation took a week to take, though. Lumpkin had only two carries for 2 yards against the Tigers. He was stopped for no gain on third-and-1 early in the second quarter and didn’t get another carry.
“I was ticked at him, and he was ticked at himself “ after that carry, Kirby Smart said.
However, the coach didn’t hold it against Lumpkin the next week, promoting him from third string to second string. He responded with 38 yards on five carries against Kentucky, his season-high at the time, and then he rushed for 74 yards on 11 carries against Georgia Tech last week.
“What you saw Saturday is what we saw before Auburn,” Smart said.
Lumpkin’s progression is typical for a player returning from ACL surgery, Richt said. Richt often uses the example of former linebacker Boss Bailey, who didn’t return to his old form until the year after he came back from surgery. Lumpkin is only now beginning to run like he did when he was the starter at the end of the 2003 season, Richt said.
“I think he’s just got more confidence and is getting used to playing again, at first you’re just wanting to run up in there and hold onto the football and protect yourself to a certain degree,” Richt said. “Now he’s wanting to punish tacklers and make people miss and do some things more than just the basics.”
Georgia’s coaches haven’t offered any clues into what the running back depth chart will look like Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, when the No. 13 Bulldogs (9-2) take on No. 3 LSU (10-1). Lumpkin has let it be known he’d like to start, particularly in this game. He was the Bulldogs’ starting running back the last time Georgia played in the Tigers in the title game, and he dropped an earlypass that killed any chance the Bulldogs had of competing in a game that ended 31-14 in favor of LSU.
“I feel like that one catch maybe could have changed the whole game around,” Lumpkin said. “I’m glad to have a second chance. Second chances don’t come around too often. I have to take advantage.”
However, if he doesn’t start, or even if he doesn’t come into the game second, he won’t complain.
“Kregg has done a great job all year,” Smart said. “From Day 1 when we talked about being unselfish and not pouting, he’s been the personification of that. He’s done exactly what I’ve said. He’s been upset after games but never to the point where he let it show or he let it affect his work.”
Even Lumpkin’s father, Tony, a regular at practice, has never been anything but positive, Richt said.
“He’s a good influence,” Lumpkin said of his father. “My mom’s a good influence. My whole family isa good influence. I just have to be patient.”
Lumpkin’s breakout performance won’t affect that mind-set, he said.
“We’ve still got two other great running backs in front of me,” he said. “I just have to be patient and wait my turn.”
Ron Gartrell, who coached Lumpkin at Stephenson High School, said this week that Georgia’s coaches still haven’t seen the best of his former player.
““Kregg I feel is the best running back that I’ve ever seen in high school,” Gartrell said. “There’s no doubt in my mind if doesn’t get hurt his senior year we go on to be 15-0 and win the state championship. He’s got some more work to do, and he knows that but I think 2006 is really going to be a great season for him.”
Georgia’s running backs
Carries Yards TDs YPC
Thomas Brown 124 596 3 4.8
Danny Ware 92 458 1 5.0
Kregg Lumpkin 44 230 2 5.2