Video by Wes Muilenburg; Photo by Dean Legge; Produced by Dean Legge; Commentary by Dean Legge; Story below by David Hale
King Tries to Turn it on
ATHENS - It’s not that Caleb King doesn’t want the attention. In truth, he craves it. The cheers, the fans, the success – it’s what made playing football fun.
Due to a confluence of injuries, inexperience and the presence of a superstar tailback already on Georgia’s roster, however, King has soaked in the cheers of an adoring crowd after a touchdown just once in nearly three years – a statistic that might have seemed impossible to anyone who witnessed his dominant prep career.
In high school, there were few running backs in the country with as much skill and stature as King. He was considered by many to be the finest recruit in the state when Georgia signed him out of Greater Atlanta Christian in 2007.
Since he arrived at Georgia, fans have waited for the same flair, the same I’m-better-than-you-and-you-can’t-stop-me running style he displayed in high school. And they’ve waited. And waited. Fans waited to shower King with attention, but for two years, King tried to hide in the shadows.
"His focus and attention to the detail, you saw him regress," said Tony Ball, King’s position coach each of the past two seasons. "His energy level went down.”
King came to Georgia amid much fanfare, the prize of the 2007 recruiting class, but with a crowded backfield that included seniors Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown and break-out star Knowshon Moreno; he couldn’t find his way onto the field, earning a redshirt his first season in Athens. By the spring of 2008, Lumpkin and Brown were gone, and fans and coaches alike waited for King to use the opportunity to grab a stranglehold on the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. And they waited. And waited.
Eventually King was passed on the depth chart by true freshman Richard Samuel, starting last season as Georgia’s third option in the backfield. He occasionally worked his way onto the field with measured success, showing just enough of the brilliance he displayed in high school to frustrate coaches who wondered why he couldn’t be that dominant all the time. It was the details that failed him. Sure, he could burst through the line with the football in his hand, but his blocking, his recognition skills, the subtleties of the position – all were lacking.
It wasn’t that King didn’t want to be better. It wasn’t that he no longer craved the success he had enjoyed in high school. It was that the adulation that had come so easily before now seemed like an overwhelming challenge, one he wasn’t sure he could meet.
In the film room, King rarely spoke up. When he had questions, he didn’t seek answers. When he failed, he simply wanted to move on, to step away from the spotlight.
“It’s just like in class; even though they don’t know it, they’re not going to ask and find out the right answer,” first-year running backs coach Bryan McClendon said. “They’ll try to learn through fire, learn on their own.”
King’s trial by fire wasn’t helping his play, however, and after one particularly egregious performance against Tennessee last season, Ball had seen enough. He summoned King to his office and told him things had to change.
“I sat down with Coach Ball, and he pretty much told me I had to be more outgoing so the team knows that I care,” King said.
From the outside, it was hard to explain why someone with so much talent would be so reserved within the locker room and on the practice field. King had been on campus for nearly two years, and he still wasn’t comfortable. He was a star, but he wasn’t sure how good he was. He wanted to prove he could fulfill people’s expectations, but he was afraid of failure.
Further complicating the situation was the man in the No. 24 jersey who had set a new standard for success at the running back position for Georgia. Moreno was a god to Bulldogs fans – the second coming of Herschel Walker, a player who did everything right and relished the big stage. While King was afraid to speak up in team meetings, Moreno’s confidence was on display each time he danced in the huddle as Georgia sketched out another play on game day. Moreno was both the standard by which King would be judged and the biggest impediment to his growth.
“It was hard,” King said. “On the sideline you would see him make a play and be like, dang, I can do that, too. It was tough.”
In 2008, King touched the ball 65 times, but just three times after Oct. 25. In seven of Georgia’s 13 games, King had three or fewer touches, and his problems with blocking meant he spent most of his time on the sideline.
Meanwhile, Moreno’s star continued to rise. For the second straight year, he topped 1,000 yards rushing and was on the field for nearly 90 percent of the offensive snaps in the final weeks of the 2008 season.
Eventually, the routine became standard practice for King. He wasn’t trying to be the best runner. He knew his role, and he accepted it. He had been overshadowed by Moreno for so long, he had grown comfortable waiting in the wings.
“I think that's immaturity,” Ball said. “When he got a chance to play, he was never really ready to take advantage of it. To me, that's immaturity because he knows he's always one play away from being the starter. That should have never been an excuse."
If King’s struggles frustrated coaches, they downright perplexed fans.
The fans had expected the world of King. Instead, for two years they rarely got a glimpse of him on the field.
The explanations seemed obvious. King didn’t care. He didn’t practice hard. He didn’t want to be great. His insecurity passed for indifference. His frustration appeared to be arrogance. His silence was mistaken for a lack of passion.
In truth, King wanted nothing more than to reach the lofty standards his reputation had set. What held him back was the worry that he wouldn’t meet them. Instead, he tuned out the voices that had once propelled him to high-school stardom.
“I honestly don’t know what the fans said,” King said. “In high school, I used to be on (the message boards), but I really don’t pay attention to it too much now.”
While the battle for playing time with Moreno seemed a lost cause, King had trouble simply staying ahead of Samuel, the 17-year-old freshman, who had come to Georgia a year after King’s arrival. Samuel was everything King was not.
Samuel was a student of the game, or more to the point, he played the part well. He asked questions. He wanted to know the playbook inside and out. He may not have had the natural instincts in the running game that King possessed, but Samuel was all about the details.
The competition for the role of Moreno’s chief understudy became a study in contrasts. King had an extra year of experience and was a natural-born running back. Samuel was a coach’s dream, raw and talented and desperate to get better. In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that Samuel won the job at the end of fall camp, just six months after arriving in Athens from high school.
“It was a competing thing,” Samuel said. “He would go do something good in practice, and I would be like, oh, OK, now I’ve got to do something good. We were competing.”
Ball had hoped the demotion to third on the depth chart would spark a fire within King, but if it did, the change was gradual at best.
Throughout the early part of the season, the playing time for both backups wavered – Samuel earned snaps one week, then struggled the next. King would get his shot, but he never showed he was ready to make an impact.
Eventually, the frustration reached its boiling point for Ball, who now coaches Georgia’s receivers. He had seen King miss too many blocks, get brought down in the secondary without making the right move too many times. Two weeks after the meeting Ball had hoped would spark King’s transformation, the tailback hit bottom.
It was a game that eventually became a blowout, but when King missed a key block that allowed Florida to sack quarterback Matthew Stafford and halt a crucial drive, it seemed like a mortal sin. Ball had seen enough. King was yanked from the field for the rest of the game. He wouldn’t play another down for nearly a month.
“If I was a coach and a player wasn’t performing at the ability I thought he could, I would have sat him down, too, until he got his head straight,” King said. “I don’t fault him or anything. That’s when I took it on myself to work harder. I started studying the playbook more, going in the weight room more, just trying to get better.”
The result was far from an overnight change for King, but marginal progress was made.
In the classroom, he enjoyed his best semester since getting to Georgia, a sign he had reached a new level of enthusiasm Ball said. But on the field, King still left much to be desired.
“To me, I think the jury is still out,” Ball said. “You hope that he has (turned a corner); you pray that he has, but I don't know if there was an indication in the latter part of the season or the bowl week that would make me say he has turned a corner.”
In the locker room, however, King’s teammates say the transition has been subtle but important.
In the film room, King not only asks questions now, but he answers them. In the weight room, he’s determined, enthusiastic.
“You can see the expression on his face when he steps into the meeting room or goes in there to work out,” McClendon said. “He takes it and goes after it.”
He treats teammates more like friends than strangers, laughing and joking more than he did before.
During offseason workouts, King found Samuel lifting in the weight room one day and offered a few tongue-in-cheek barbs at his fellow tailback. It was something he never would have been comfortable saying a year ago, but now Georgia is slowly starting to feel like home and his teammates seem more like family.
“I’m a shy person,” King said. “It takes a long time for me to fit in and start talking. I started talking and playing around more, and I felt a lot more comfortable with the team and the coaches and stuff.”
Yes, Moreno is gone now, headed to the NFL where he’ll show off his skills on Sundays for the foreseeable future. That leaves a job open for another of Georgia’s tailbacks to assume the role of Saturday superstar.
And yes, Samuel had to undergo offseason wrist surgery that cost him all of spring practice, putting his quest for the starting job on hold and giving King a leg up in the competition.
But it’s about more than opportunity for King. This year is a chance to show he’s the player coaches and fans thought he could be, but it’s also a chance for him to prove something to himself.
“He’s reached a turning point,” wide receiver Kris Durham said. “He knew he had Knowshon to help him out, but he knows he has an opportunity to come in and start, and I think his focus is going to be toward that. He’s going to get more and more reps, and I think that’s going to help his confidence.”
At Norcross High School, fullback Fred Munzenmaier saw firsthand what King was capable of doing on a football field when he faced off against King’s Greater Atlanta Christian. As King’s teammate at Georgia, he has gotten a close-up view of how difficult the road to stardom in the SEC has been, too.
During their battles in high school, Munzenmaier always saw something in King he knew was special, however, and that spark of greatness hasn’t disappeared, he said.
“I’ve seen Caleb coming up for a while now, and he’s always been one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever seen,” Munzenmaier said. “It’s hard to take that from the high-school level to the college level. Not every guy can do that and dominate the same way he did in high school. But what I’ve seen Caleb do is bring that here, polish up his fundamentals, and I think he’s setting himself up for success.”
The expectations have never been higher for King than they are this year. He has a chance to be the next Knowshon Moreno – something he freely admits is both a blessing and a curse.
But this time, King is better prepared for what’s in store. Those lonely days sitting silent in the film room are behind him. That was when he feared failure. Now, he anticipates success.
Before Moreno left school, he imparted a bit of wisdom that King said has stuck with him. Regardless of how many fans are in the stands or how many stories they write about you in the newspaper, Moreno told him, it’s still just football. If King wanted to find success – to find happiness playing football again – he simply needed to forget the expectations and get back to doing what he does best.
“It’s no pressure,” King said. “I’ve been doing this since I was little. I just have to go out there every day and play football and have fun.”