King knows what it feels like to fail, too. He was slowly earning more playing time a season ago before a missed block against Florida landed him on the bench for the next several weeks.
More than anything, King knows how it feels to push through the hard times. Last week’s two-touchdown performance was a high point in a season marked by setbacks.
In his three years at Georgia, King has learned a lot of tough lessons, and this season, he’s taking pride in sharing what he learned with his counterpart in the Bulldogs’ backfield, freshman Washaun Ealey.
“I always sit him aside to talk to him,” King said. “Going through what I went through helped me out, so now I can help out the younger players.”
The relationship has been immensely beneficial to both players, and in turn, it has helped Georgia turn around a moribund running game early in the season to become one of the SEC’s top backfields during the past month.
Leadership didn’t always come easily to King. In fact, it’s been a bit of a novel concept this season that any of the younger players would look to him for advice. Until two weeks ago, King had never started a game. For the better part of his first two seasons, he spent more time in the coaches’ doghouse than on the field. In meetings, he listened, but he rarely talked. Leadership was someone else’s job.
This season, however, King became a leader almost by default. Knowshon Moreno had moved on to the NFL, and Georgia’s backfield was bereft of experience. King was the elder statesman, and the younger running backs took notice. It was a strange twist to his career, but King found it was a role he relished.
“I don’t want to say it was given to me, but a lot of the younger players, they did look up to me just because I’d been here longer,” King said. “So I took it upon that and told myself I was going to try to do better so I could help the players around me.”
The assistance has been key for Ealey, who spent the first four games of the season stuck on the sideline after a preseason injury set back his journey to the playing field. But King stuck by him, offering words of encouragement and advice on impressing the coaching staff. Soon, Ealey was not only on the field, but starting games.
“He’s been really helping me out, being encouraging, helping me learn plays, telling me what to do, showing me blocking techniques,” Ealey said.
A year ago, the idea of King teaching blocking techniques to a younger teammate might have seemed laughable to a few of King’s coaches. It was the sophomore’s shortcomings in the blocking game that had been holding him back for the past two seasons, after all.
But this offseason, King decided to make his weakness a strength. He worked tirelessly on his pass protection, and the results were immediate.
Despite battling injuries throughout the season and spending much of the past month on a liquid diet following a broken jaw, King has emerged as the team’s best blocking tailback. Against Auburn last week, King upended a Tigers linebacker to give quarterback Joe Cox time to connect on a 50-yard touchdown that proved to be crucial in the game. It was a turning point in Georgia’s comeback win, but it was also a perfect illustration of how far King had come as a player.
“He has really matured a lot,” Ealey said. “You can tell he’s been here a while. He knows what to do at the right times. He’s going to run well, he’s going to block well, he knows what it takes to be a great back.”
Despite the improvements King has made since last season, he hasn’t enjoyed a smooth campaign in 2009. He missed the first two weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, then missed the game against Tennessee while recovering from a concussion. It’s been an uphill battle just to stay on the field, and in the meantime, Ealey has blossomed into a potential star, even earning the SEC’s freshman of the week honors following a 98-yard rushing performance against Auburn.
Despite the competition for playing time, however, there is little animosity between the two tailbacks. There are a few taunts and jabs, but it’s all in good fun.
“I give him a lot of grief about it,” Ealey said. “I always tell him he’s backing me up and stuff like that.”
King gives as good as he gets, but along with the pointed jabs, he also offers some poignant advice.
“I’m not the type of player who, because he’s starting one week, I’m not going to tell him what he’s doing wrong,” King said. “Of course I still want to win at the end of the day.”
For Ealey, getting input and encouragement from King has been a crucial building block to his success. King has gone through the hard times. He’s teaching from experience, and he’s protecting his younger protégé from the same pitfalls.
“When we’re off the field, we’re real close friends,” Ealey said. “We hang out, we go everywhere together. He’s mainly been like a big brother, someone I can look up to, someone who has got my back.”
For King, the leadership role has been a blessing, too. He’s still quiet compared to many of his boisterous teammates, but he has become far more outgoing this season than he had been in years past.
There’s a confidence that comes with being a leader, and that confidence has helped spark King’s resurgence, too.
“When I speak, I see that actually really listen,” King said. “It has helped my vocal skills, and I do talk more.”
The results off the field have been dynamic, but it’s what happens on the field that King and Ealey are most concerned about.
Yes, they’ll likely spend much of the next two seasons playfully arguing about who should start the next game. But the beauty of the relationship they have developed is that both players are ready to make an impact. And that’s a long way from where this season began.
“I believe it’s going to be a special one-two punch in the future, if not the rest of this year,” King said. “I think we complement each other real well.”