ATHENS, Ga. - If Musa Smith is completely healthy, then the preseason focus at tailback will be to find the top backup for the junior.
Smith, limited to five starts last season by a nagging groin injury that also kept him out of spring drills, is expected to be at full speed when Georgia conducts its first varsity practice on Thursday.
There are several candidates, and no clear favorite, to be the top backup. The hope is some back emerges in the next three weeks who can provide an effective change of pace to Smith's power game.
Based only on three freshman practices, the top change of pace back among newcomers appears to be Tyson Browning.
When he signed with Georgia out of Oconee County High School in 2001 and again this year out of Fork Union Military Academy, it was not clear if he would play tailback or wide receiver.
Said Coach Mark Richt after looking at Browning's speed in the freshman-only practices: "Tailback. He's going to be a tailback.''
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds when he signed, Browning was measured at 5-8
and 160 pounds this week. That doesn't worry Richt, who utilized similarly small,
quick backs when he was Florida State's offensive coordinator.
Said running backs coach Tony Pierce of Browning: "He's been making them miss. He has 'it.' We've been saying we're looking for that guy with 'it.' What is 'it?' It's that thing that makes linebackers miss, defensive backs miss.''
Added Pierce: "He can just stand right in front of you and make you miss. He has
Pierce also has been impressed by true freshman Michael Cooper, who checked in at 5-11 and 222 pounds. Cooper has strong SuperPrep All-America credentials from his career at Screven County High School, but he looks more like a lead back than a complementary player.
"Oh yeah, he's a power guy,'' said Pierce of Cooper. "He's closer to Musa. He can make you miss when he's going full speed, but he looks like he's ready to run over you right now.''
Pierce also has been taking his first look at two freshman fullbacks - Christopher Hickman (5-11, 244) of Wheeler High and walk-on Antowin Clowers (5-10, 233) of Macon's First Presbyterian Day. Georgia has senior J.T. Wall, a former walk-on, as the projected starting fullback, but help at the position was needed for depth and the future.
"I'm real pleased with the fullbacks,'' Pierce said. "Hickman is strong and powerful. Clowers also looks strong.''
When varsity practice begins Thursday, redshirt freshman Tony Milton and two sophomores - Ronnie Powell and Mike Gilliam - will be the top candidates to compete with Browning and Cooper for the top backup job at tailback.
Milton may be the darkhorse of the group. In his redshirt year, Milton was impressing coaches with his work on the scout team offense, but he missed spring drills with a shoulder injury. Milton is cleared for the start of practice.
Gilliam is similar to Browning in size and speed. He had 10 carries for 29 yards while playing in five games as a true freshman. Powell, a former defensive back, was the leading rusher in spring's G-Day game with 15 carries for 81 yards. Ideally, Richt said he would like to have a back with Smith's size and power and the quickness and speed of Browning and Gilliam.
"I'd like to find a back who can do it all, who can break tackles and run between the tackles and who can take it the distance,'' Richt said. "I don't know if we have him in the program now.''
Charles Odum can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com