Upon Positive Review

With spring practice approaching, teammates have been raving about the work ethic of a certain embattled tailback.

ATHENS – Expectations, success, injuries, suspensions, rumors, jokes about Doritos – all describe a portion or two of Isaiah Crowell's first season spent in Athens.

He shouldered comparisons to Herschel in fall camp. He heard cheers against South Carolina. He felt boos in the SEC Championship game.

Fair or foul, Crowell, who rushed for 850 yards and five touchdowns, became the most polarizing Georgia football player of the Mark Richt Era this side of D.J. Shockley.

"You ask these expectations out of a kid who is 18 years old," said junior tight end Arthur Lynch. "Let's face it, he had his success. People were so demanding of this savior idea, he's the next Herschel Walker – I mean that's unfairly suited to him."

Let's be frank, there's no need to feel sorry for Crowell. After all, he is going to school for free and is the big man on campus.

There are perks to that gig. And it also comes with criticism from outspoken fans that rabidly want to see potential fulfilled.

Crowell didn't always help himself. He blew off some summer workouts, one that was led by Walker himself. He was held out for a quarter against Vanderbilt for missing a class. He was suspended for the New Mexico State game for failing a drug test.

"He didn't know what it takes," said tailback Richard Samuel. "It's a different level. You have to go through more and put in more from high school to college."

What Isaiah couldn't control were the injuries. He played through minor dings to his ribs, wrist and knee early on.

A high ankle sprain against Kentucky effectively ended his season. He only rushed for 29 yards after offensive guard Chris Burnette rolled up on the most controversial left ankle in the state of Georgia.

"That's the thing, it could have been that much or a little bit worse and Isaiah would have needed surgery," Lynch said. "You could just tell in practice that he was hurt. It wasn't like he was saying I'm going to cop out in the game just because I can't reach the level of success I've had in these prior games. I think he was legitimately hurt, and he tried to fight through it more than anyone else could expect."

Football players become more human when the helmet comes off, when a face can be placed with the name on the back of the jersey. For fans seeing Crowell on the sideline in all his dreadlocked glory, the opportunity to scrutinize became a juicy looking low hanging fruit.

Crowell could hear fans questioning his manhood while he sat on the bench in the Kentucky game. He understood that boos during the LSU game were directed at him for limping off the field.

What really angered many was Crowell's laid back attitude. There he sat, biting his nails and fixating his glance on nothing in particular. Fans wanted him to be up cheering his teammates on, waiving a towel or slapping shoulder pads.

That may have been a more appropriate way to act, but that's not Crowell.

It just simply isn't his personality.

"I think he's a kid that he loves football to death, but if he wasn't a football player I don't think he would mind that much," Lynch said. "When he's on the field he's a competitor and he gets after it. When he's off, he just hangs out with (defensive back) Quintavious (Harrow) – Q. That's his high school buddy that he grew up with.

"The only other person I know like (Crowell) was (former star wideout) A.J. (Green). I mean, A.J. you would never see anywhere. Like, we go out to eat; A.J. was rarely ever there. You would never see him. He was real relaxed, but when he came on the field he was just a competitor. I don't think anybody ever took shots at A.J. I think they definitely mistake that."

Only three yards on three carries in the Outback Bowl had many looking forward to incoming freshman Keith Marshall. Another North Carolina tailback, Todd Gurley, would later join in the 2012 signing class.

Many saw the influx of talent in the backfield as either a way to replace Crowell or a way to motivate him this offseason.

Whether fresh talent had anything to do with it or not, reviews from the offseason have been positive. But let's face it – reviews from the offseason about every player are always positive.

How do the appraisals about Crowell differ from the run of the mill?

"I think that Isaiah is definitely growing up," Richt said. "He's getting there, but again, he's really like a lot a freshman. It takes a while to get used to it, the regimen, the class, all the academics, the strength and conditioning, football practices, just the scheme to learn. It's not very simple, and it's kind of tough."

Crowell admitted last fall he didn't always go to workouts in high school. He didn't always practice hard. He didn't have to.

"I don't think he ever had to go to workouts demanding two hours a day, and it's different for anybody," Lynch said. "Everybody just used him as a prime example because of the fact that he was Isaiah, and he was this highly touted guy. There were other guys who had the same problems he did, they just might have been redshirting or might have been playing or not having as big an impact on the team."

Fans weren't the only one upset about Crowell's absence from games. He was mad, too. He wanted to be a freshman All-American (he listed that as a goal in the pre-season). He wanted to be Herschel Walker (he told recruits that when he visited Georgia in January of 2011). He loves Georgia and Richt (he had his pick of every college out of high school and chose the Bulldogs).

So, avoiding the typical offseason positive squelch, what is Crowell doing now?

"He's been working hard in mat drills," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "(One day) I was doing the stations with him and he was doing the ladder drill. He looked awesome. He was working hard, he was running through, he looked smooth and if he got sent back he hustled and got back in line and did it again. I definitely think he matured over the past season."

"Coach Richt always says the Georgia way, which in reality is just the right way," Lynch said. "I think he's understanding how to do it and how to do it at a speed he's comfortable with. It's not for everybody right away, but I think the fact that he is maturing a lot says a lot about himself and a lot about the leaders on this team helping him develop. I expect nothing but good things for him."

"I've seen that he's grown and learned from things that happened during the season, Samuel said. "He has a hard work ethic. He's working towards a goal instead of just going through the motions."

"I see a lot of improvement in Isaiah, no doubt," Richt said. "I'd say he's there, he understands completely all the work ethic and everything it takes to be great. I'd say he's in the process of getting there like all these other guys. He's just the one that everybody watches the most and everybody asks more about."

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