When the opportunity finally arrived, his wrist was in cast and his practices were limited to little more than jogging, watching and waiting.
If Samuel’s offseason wrist surgery was a setback, however, he sure hasn’t shown any lingering effects this fall. In fact, rather than tread water while the wrist healed, Samuel made the most of his time off, ironing out the finer points of his game and emerging this preseason as Georgia’s premier ball carrier.
“I was able to sit back and watch practice, watch why the offense does certain things, read a defense, learn more about the game,” Samuel said. “I started using that. Just because I wasn’t able to get out there and perform, I used it as a time to learn the fundamentals of the whole offense – not just the running backs, but the line, how the wide receivers block, the fullbacks.”
For Samuel, football is a thinking man’s game, even if his style on the field belies his underlying appreciation of the finer points.
At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Samuel runs like a fullback, but the key to his success hasn’t been his strength or speed. Samuel’s goal is to outsmart his opposition.
His intelligence should come as no surprise to anyone who knows his history. Samuel graduated high school early and was just 16 when he enrolled at Georgia. Despite a crowded backfield that included Knowshon Moreno and highly touted prospect Caleb King, Samuel fought his way up the depth chart and was Georgia’s No. 2 tailback to open the 2008 season, as much because of his success in the film room as on the practice field.
“He’s a smart dude,” fullback Shaun Chapas said. “He pays attention. Ever since he came in, he impressed me with how well he picked stuff up. He has the ability to learn stuff on the fly, and if you tell him something once, he’s going to remember it. That’s what really stood out to me. He works his butt off, and he’s definitely got all the physical attributes to get the job done.”
Samuel takes so much pleasure from barreling over a defender that many fans wondered if he might be better suited to a position like linebacker, which is an opinion he has never shared. After all, hitting is great, but what Samuel really enjoys are the finer points of his job.
While King flashed his skills this spring and redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas dazzled with his agility, Samuel sat and watched. He watched, and he learned.
Nearly every player calls those hours spent gazing from the sideline “mental reps,” but for Samuel, it couldn’t be a more appropriate moniker.
“I find enjoyment in how certain things we do can help set up the linemen, set up their blocking, just little things that build off each other,” Samuel said. “I enjoy the different aspects of it.”
That’s always been Samuel’s style.
As a 16-year-old in a meeting room with Knowshon Moreno, speaking up might seem intimidating. For Samuel, however, it was a chance to pick the brain of the best running back he had ever worked with.
In the film room, picking out the subtleties of what happens on the field takes time. For Samuel, however, he didn’t just want to watch the running backs. He wanted to understand the entire offense.
Success on the field is important, but Samuel’s best chance at repeating those results comes from understanding what happened in the first place. He’s as much a scientist as he is a football player.
“He’s one of those guys always asking questions or wondering why someone did something, why the offensive line blocked a certain way,” Chapas said. “He’s a student of the game, and he really enjoys watching the film and trying to get better.”
Despite all the knowledge Samuel has acquired since arriving at Georgia, he’s no football savant. It took time and a lot of work.
Last year, Samuel was every bit a 17-year-old freshman in over his head. He averaged more than 5 yards per carry when he was in the game, but struggles with fumbles and blocking schemes relegated him to the sideline for much of the season. There was still a lot to learn.
Missing this spring was tough. Samuel knew the opportunity at hand, and he was anxious to prove he deserved a starting job. But he was patient, and he made sure he was armed with the knowledge he needed to succeed when he finally did return to action.
“I feel like I’ve become a better player this year,” Samuel said. “It’s helped to have something more to work for, too, and last year I felt like I was just trying to get used to things. Now that I’m used to things, I’m working on the other aspects that help my game.”
That’s the beauty of Samuel’s approach – there’s always room to get better.
While Samuel may still be tinkering with his game, however, head coach Mark Richt has seen a different side of his sophomore tailback. There’s a confidence about him, and it suits him well.
“Has a much more comfortable air about him, his body language,” Richt said. “He’s in control of what to do, and he’s giving people confidence right now.”
That didn’t happen overnight. There were many hours spent with his nose in the playbook or his eyes glued to the big screen in the film room.
After so much hard work, Samuel is finally enjoying the fruits of his labor, earning the top spot in Georgia’s tailback rotation. It’s a nice reward, he said, but it also means he needs to get even better.
Even as the starter, there’s always more to learn.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a relief because I’m still working,” Samuel said. “But it’s an achievement.”