Land of Opportunity?

ATHENS – New Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon calls the Bulldogs' backfield the land of opportunity, where nothing is guaranteed but virtually anything seems possible during this offseason.

That was hardly the case last year when Knowshon Moreno dominated the playing time, and his understudies – Caleb King and Richard Samuel – fought for just four or five touches per game in backup duty. With Moreno headed to the NFL, however, there are plenty of carries up for grabs, and the task of securing the load is just beginning for Georgia's young backfield.

"It's wide open. Nobody's locked in to anything now as one, two or three," McClendon "Hopefully everyone gets a fair shot to see if they can handle it. Their performance is the only thing that's going to determine that."

The problem this spring, however, is that not everyone will have a fair shot.

King and freshman Carlton Thomas should be healthy participants in spring practice, but freshman Dontavius Jackson is recovering from a knee injury that will limit his play early, and Samuel recently underwent wrist surgery that will keep him out of spring drills entirely.

The injuries could give King a leg up in the race to replace Moreno, but he's not counting on anything just yet.

"I need to keep more focus and work harder," King said, "because I know this is my year, and I need to have a good year."

King struggled at times – particularly with blocking – in limited action last season. He finished the year with 61 carries for 247 yards and a touchdown, but carried the ball just twice after Oct. 25.

Samuel went through an equally discouraging stretch, earning just a single carry from mid-September through the Bulldogs' Nov. 1 date with Florida. Samuel managed a 5.1 yard per carry average for the season and was the clear No. 2 back as SEC came to a close, but he didn't touch the ball on offense against Georgia Tech or in the bowl game against Michigan State.

When Georgia kicks off the 2009 season, however, at least one – and possibly both – of the two young running backs will have a significantly heftier role.

"I really don't know if it's going to be a one-back or two-back, but either way, I think we're both going to put up some numbers," King said.

Before Moreno's breakout performances midway through the 2007 season, the Bulldogs had become known for employing a successful running back-by-committee approach under head coach Mark Richt. While McClendon said he hasn't decided on any specific game plan yet, a return to a mutli-player running game could happen in 2009 once again.

That's not exactly the outcome either Samuel or King is hoping for, however, and both are hoping to land the bulk of the carries the same way Moreno did last season.

Samuel said the inconsistent playing time in 2008 made it difficult to translate his film-room study sessions into on-field production, something he expects to change once he's healthy enough to carry the ball again.

"It makes it easier because I know that I'll be able to get more chances to show that I've learned and I've grown and gotten better at the things I was slacking at," Samuel said.

While Samuel averaged more than a yard per rush better than King, he said he is still hoping to add some speed and elusiveness to his game, too.

King, on the other hand, is less concerned with his running style than he is about perfecting the subtleties of playing tailback at Georgia.

"I'm trying to get my strength up so I can be a better blocker," he said. "I believe the coaches know I can run, so I just need to work on my pass blocking."

Thomas and Jackson both redshirted in 2008 but hope to play a role in the offense next season.

Jackson missed bowl practice while waiting for his injury to heal, and King said it was obvious the time off was a struggle for him.

"You can tell when all the running backs are out there working, he'll be down sometimes," King said of Jackson. "But he's a hard worker, so when he gets his chance, he's going to work hard to get back into the rotation."

Meanwhile, Thomas shouldn't take long to acclimate himself into the backfield battle. At just 5-foot-7, Thomas is dwarfed by King and Samuel, but his speed and versatility make him a serious threat.

"I'm going to tell you, watch out for Carlton," King said. "Carlton Thomas is going to be something special."

That's the upside for Georgia in 2009. While there is no set plan to replace one of the program's all-time best runners, there is plenty of potential waiting in the wings.

Just how that potential shakes out on the depth chart remains to be seen, but for now, King said, he's not worrying about alternatives. He wants to carry the load.

"Of course I do," he said. "And if not… well, I'm not going to say if not."

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