Instead, running backs coach Bryan McClendon’s first year on the job has been a bit more of a trial by fire.
Gone was Knowshon Moreno, the foundation of the Bulldogs’ fearsome backfield for the past two seasons. In his place was a talented depth chart with virtually no experience and no clear frontrunner for carries.
It wasn’t anything close to a simple job for a first-year coach, but McClendon said he’s learned a lot along the way.
“I’ve definitely grown, but it’s not so much about me,” McClendon said. “My job was to get those guys ready to play on Saturday and be there for them in whatever they need off the field. But a lot of it is just those guys and bringing in guys you don’t mind being there for. I think I’ve got a room full of them.”
That bond has blossomed as the season has progressed. In the early going, the running game was a mess. Five players – six, if you count cornerback Branden Smith, who earned reps on offense this season – were fighting for carries in the fall, and injuries and inconsistency plagued the unit in the early going.
The result was a dismal showing on the ground. Through six weeks, Georgia was last in the SEC in rushing and had turned in just one performance of more than 100 yards on the ground – and even that was bolstered by one long run by Richard Samuel.
But as the season went along, players got healthy and McClendon and the rest of Georgia’s coaching staff got a better feel for the personnel. The results were dramatic. The Bulldogs’ tailbacks tallied at least 130 yards on the ground in each of their final six games and ended the regular season with a dominant performance in which both Caleb King and freshman Washaun Ealey zoomed past the 100-yard mark.
“He’s done a great job with us all year and you can really tell just watching us on the field that as a unit we’ve really been getting better all year,” fullback Shaun Chapas said of McClendon’s efforts. “That’s something he preaches every day.”
For a while, McClendon said, he wasn’t sure how many of his players believed him, but he preached that same message ad nauseum. Work hard, earn your playing time and things will improve.
In the beginning, it was tough. Samuel was getting the bulk of the carries, but his successes were often intertwined with long stretches of mediocrity.
King, the veteran of the group as a third-year sophomore, battled through injuries.
Carlton Thomas never quite found his role and Dontavius Jackson struggled to maneuver up the depth chart, while Ealey, the lone true freshman, appeared destined for a redshirt after an elbow injury in fall practice hindered his development.
It was a struggle for McClendon just to give each runner a chance to shine.
“You’ve got to make sure that you leave them in there long enough that they can get in a rhythm, and you don’t want to shortchange anybody,” McClendon said. “But you’ve got to play the guys who do it in practice.”
But even throughout the struggles, McClendon rode his players hard. He demanded better performances, both on game day and on the practice field. He offered no excuses and, although maintaining morale was a tricky proposition, he never promised anything to his players other than a guarantee that effort would eventually be rewarded.
“He’s one of those tough-coaching guys, and no matter what, you’re going to practice hard,” Ealey said. “He knows what it takes to get the job done, and he’s done a good job with us making sure we’re doing everything right. I think he was a real big help this year for me as a player. He really made me step up my game.”
Eventually Ealey did step up his game. He worked his way onto the field in the second half against LSU – five full weeks into the season – for his first carries. He showed potential, and although there was clearly room for improvement, McClendon delivered on his promise to give playing time to those who earned it.
“He never stopped giving me reps at practice and always told me to run the ball hard,” Ealey said. “He got on me in the film room a lot, and he knew I had to get better. But he kept me working hard so I could get on the field.”
King found his opportunities, too, after playing through a broken jaw for much of the latter half of the season. The combination of King and Ealey sparked the running game, but it shuffled Samuel and Thomas to the back of the deck, and neither saw significant action down the stretch.
Again, McClendon did his best to balance egos in the locker room, but his real focus was on managing talent. The best players played, and if anyone was unhappy about riding the bench, he simply demanded the offer better results on the practice field. It was the same strategy he had employed all season.
“That really wasn’t my goal to keep everyone happy,” McClendon said. “My goal was to put the guy out there who gave us the best chance to win. At that time when all those guys were playing, that was my feeling. The biggest thing was giving all those guys an opportunity to display whether they were that guy or not.”
The funny thing was, however, McClendon’s plan actually did keep everyone happy.
It’s not that each didn’t want more playing time. It’s not that any of the tailbacks didn’t believe they were capable of more. But while McClendon didn’t do anyone any favors, he treated them all fairly and encouraged each to keep working.
“He kept us going strong and kept us believing in ourselves,” Samuel said. “He just kept pushing us.”
As Georgia winds down its 2009 season, the prospects for 2010 look bright. The entirety of the Bulldogs’ suddenly resurgent backfield will return next year, and the job McClendon will have in Year 2 might actually be a bit closer to that cushy gig he might have enjoyed with Moreno there to carry the load.
But again, he isn’t complaining. It’s been a wild ride in his rookie season as a coach, and it’s been an experience he’ll build a career from.
“I wouldn’t trade my position for anything,” McClendon said. “I wouldn’t trade the guys I have or when I came in, because I’ve learned just as much from those guys as they have from me, and I think we’ve developed a special bond.”