But the true freshman was a welcome addition by the time he took the first carry of his career for eight yards midway through the third quarter of Georgia’s 20-13 loss to LSU.
Until Ealey’s appearance, Georgia’s running game had been a disaster. On 11 carries, the Bulldogs had tallied a total of just eight yards on the ground, and the result was a completely anemic offensive effort. Ealey, however, was a spark.
“The best thing about him is he is hungry,” Cox said. “He’s wanted to play and finally go this chance. You could tell he was running really hard and that he was just excited to be in the game. A lot of times that is the type of spark you need is having somebody that just really just wants the ball in his hands.”
Ealey finished the game with just 33 yards on eight carries, but his impact went far beyond the stat sheet.
Before entering the game, Georgia’s offense had mustered just two first downs and 79 yards in 39 minutes of action. In the final 21 minutes of the game with Ealey a part of the attack, the Bulldogs picked up nine first downs and 195 yards of offense – and more importantly, had a chance to win the game with just 1:09 left to play.
The difference, like Ealey’s philosophy on running the football, was pretty simple.
“The offensive line, they open up a whole and I just try to hit it as hard as I can,” Ealey said.
The problem, however, has been that for three straight weeks prior to Ealey’s first touch, the line hadn’t opened many holes and the tailbacks hadn’t made much of their opportunities.
Georgia ranks last in the SEC in running and was averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in the past three games before Ealey took the field. Set aside an 80-yard run Richard Samuel posted against Arkansas, and that average drops to 2.27 yards per carry.
The result was a game against LSU when Georgia faced 17 third downs, 14 of which were third-and-6 or longer.
“You want to be in a position to be in a manageable third down,” Cox said. “It’s hard to convert third-and-long. You can’t do it every time. You’ve got to be able to have a good running game on those first two downs to be able to get third-down conversions.”
Georgia hopes that Ealey’s downhill style and natural instincts will help to improve those numbers, but head coach Mark Richt said the problems are widespread.
“Our run blocking needs to improve, and as I study our runners, we need to continue to mature and see these blocking schemes and understand them better and hit it where it needs to be hit,” Richt said.
Watching film of Georgia’s struggles, Richt said there have been occasions when tight ends have missed blocks, fullbacks have failed to handle assignments or the coaching staff simply had the wrong play for the situation.
While Ealey ran well, Richt said, his success also came with improved blocking by the offensive line.
Running the football is an intricate system, Bobo said, and he said there is a lot of work to be done that extends beyond simply inserting a freshman into the lineup.
“We’ve got to man up and be more physical,” Bobo said. “You’ve got to take pride in the running game. You’ve got to take pride in being able to knock somebody off the ball. You’ve got to take pride in being able to break tackles, receivers blocking. It’s not just the offensive line. It’s tight ends, it’s fullbacks, it’s quarterbacks getting the right play, it’s calling the right play and getting us in the right looks – it’s everything.”
That’s a tall order for Georgia, but the silver lining is that Bobo said he doesn’t think any of those pitfalls are far from being corrected.
The task of correcting them, however, won’t get any easier this week. Georgia heads to Tennessee, where defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will be focused on adding more misery to the Bulldogs’ rushing attack.
“They like bringing down safeties into the box and being able to have that extra run support,” Cox said. “A lot of times they’re lining up saying, you’re not going to run the ball. You’re going to have to beat us throwing the ball. That’ll be tough because you want to have a balanced game plan. We’re just going to have to find ways to open up holes for the run game against all their looks.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Ealey wears No. 24 – the same jersey number worn last year by Knowshon Moreno, Georgia’s star tailback who rumbled over nearly every opponent the Bulldogs faced during his two-year career. After all, Ealey brought an injection of confidence to the running game that Georgia had desperately missed since Moreno left following last season.
But Cox said Georgia’s success on the ground against Tennessee this week and looking ahead the rest of the season won’t be determined by Ealey alone.
There’s a chance for the freshman to have an impact, but it will be a team effort to get the running game going, Cox said.
“We’re not worried about having one guy get all the carries in a game,” Cox said, “but we’ve got to be able to execute better with the guys we do have.”