Musa Smith looks for offense to get in gear

ATHENS, Ga. - Six weeks ago, <b>Musa Smith</b> was thought to be the key for the Georgia offense. The widespread belief was that if Smith could make a successful comeback from the groin injury which limited him to five starts in 2001, then the Bulldogs should have a well-balanced attack. Four games into the season, there has been so much focus on the other parts of the Georgia offense that have not clicked that Smith's success has been almost an afterthought.

Smith ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing, but the expectation is that No. 8 Georgia will lean more heavily on its passing attack Saturday while No. 22 Alabama tries to win the game on the ground. Despite that perception, Smith could emerge as a surprise key player in the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. For all the talk about the dropped balls, overthrown passes and failures of the Georgia offense to reach its potential, Smith quietly has improved every week.

Though the lopsided wins over Northwestern State and New Mexico State have prevented Smith from seeing enough playing time to match his 100-yard efforts against Clemson and South Carolina, Coach Mark Richt says the last two games have proved that Smith is back to full speed. Last Saturday against New Mexico State, Smith rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.

"He seemed to make the right choices on just about every run,'' Richt said. "I think he seemed to feel comfortable again. It has been a while since he played a lot of football.'' Added Richt: "I thought he ran better. He blocked better. He really blocked well. I was really proud of how he protected the passer. But he ran more physical. Earlier in the season I think there was some hesitation at times.''

Even after Smith rushed for 105 yards in the season-opening win over Clemson and added 103 yards rushing against South Carolina, Richt wanted the junior to do a better job of finishing his runs. As he has gained more confidence that he is not going to hurt his groin again, Smith has run through more tackles and has looked more like a power runner the last two weeks.

"I would say he's all the way back,'' said running backs coach Tony Pierce. "He's running hard and strong and he's starting to make people miss. He's starting to get more yards after contact, and that's what all outstanding backs try to do.''

With 357 yards in four games, Smith is averaging 89.2 yards rushing per game and could be on track to give the Bulldogs their first 1000-yard rusher since Garrison Hearst in 1992. "I definitely think I have made improvements each week,'' Smith said. "I've felt better the last two games and this week at practice I've felt better on the field.''

If the passing game continues to struggle, Richt may soon look to Smith to take the same kind of lead role in the second half of the season that Verron Haynes played late last season. Smith set a career high with his 27 carries against South Carolina, but he says he does not expect Georgia to abandon the passing game. He says he just wants to show enough of a running attack Saturday to keep Alabama from looking to stop the pass every play.

"I think if we establish some kind of running game, if we hit them in the mouth and knock them backward, if we move the ball on them on the ground they're going to think twice about (looking for the pass),'' Smith said. "I like to mix it up.''

With more consistency and a good balance, Georgia would start to reach the levels of offensive production that was expected. This week, however, Georgia ranks last in the SEC in total offense, averaging only 333.8 yards per game, and so there have been persistent questions about the unit underachieving.

"I'm getting tired of it,'' said the usually soft-spoken Smith. "I think we all are getting tired of it. If it all clicks, and I think this Saturday that is going to happen, there's no telling what we can do as an offense.''

NOTES: Georgia worked out at Sanford Stadium Thursday so it could run its offense while artificial crowd noise was piped through the stadium's speakers. "There is something about that loud noise that forces them to concentrate, and they had a good practice,'' Richt said. "You've got to rely on signals and communication in the noise.'' ... Richt confirmed that offensive tackle George Foster will play against Alabama. Foster is returning from a broken wrist he suffered before preseason practice.

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