ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — When Elijah Holyfield was pondering where he wanted to go to college, he certainly took an interest in history.
Specifically, Georgias long lineage of great running backs.
“It was a very big deal to me. Ive watched Georgia football for a long time and Ive really loved all the Georgia backs,” said Holyfield, son of former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield . “It had a lot to do with my decision.”
Theyre living up to reputation again with the current backfield duo of Holyfield and DAndre Swift.
In last weeks pulverizing 34-17 victory over Kentucky , which locked up Georgias spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game, Swift rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns, Holyfield tacked on a career-best 115 yards and a score, and the Bulldogs finished with a season-high 331 yards on the ground against one of the nations top-ranked defenses.
Georgia (8-1, 6-1, No. 5 CFP) leads the SEC in rushing (233.8 yards per game), carrying on a tradition that goes back as far as 1942 Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich but really picked up steam with the arrival of Herschel Walker.
Walker, who capped his brilliant career by capturing the Heisman in 1982, is still recognized as the greatest back in school history. But hes had plenty of challengers over past 3½ decades.
Since Walker left school a year early to play in the ill-fated United States Football League, seven Georgia running backs have been picked in the first round of the NFL draft — an esteemed list that doesnt even include Terrell Davis, who was only a sixth-rounder but went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos.
More recently, Georgias pipeline has grown to include Todd Gurley, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb — who actually were on the same team in 2014 and are all now thriving in the NFL. Gurley stars for the Los Angeles Rams , earning All-Pro honors in 2017 and leading the league in rushing this season. Michel is starting for the New England Patriots as a rookie, while Chubb is getting significant playing time with the Cleveland Browns .
Coach Kirby Smart certainly relies on that heritage when hes trying to persuade a high school running back to sign with the Bulldogs.
“I think it helps tremendously to have the guys, the history of Robert Edwards, Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis, I mean Herschel, just back after back after back after back,” Smart said. “Now its probably more prominent than its ever been because of the stage that Todd is on and what hes been able to do, and Nick and Sonys exposure last year through the national championship game.
What does the coach tell prospective backs who are considering Georgia?
“If youre a premier back in the country and you say, I want to go somewhere that I can learn to play in a pro style, catch the ball in the backfield, and I also want to be able to protect so that I can increase my value, and I also want to have durability where Im not going to be beat up when I come out of there, theres nowhere better to go,” Smart replied.
Indeed, Georgia has relied on an abundance of talented running backs the last few seasons.
Previous coach Mark Richt was able to land Gurley and Keith Marshall in the same recruiting class — they were dubbed “Gurshall” in a nod to Walker — though Marshall never realized his full potential because of injuries. Richt pulled off another double-coup when he landed Chubb and Michel.
Holyfield, a junior, signed with the Bulldogs even though he knew hed spend at least one season playing behind Chubb and Michel (and it wound up being two when both stayed through their full eligibility). Swift came aboard last season, even with all those talented backs on the roster. Zamir White, touted as the nations top prospects, signed with Georgia coming into this season but was sidelined by a knee injury .
Holyfield said the competition for playing time makes everyone better. He leads the Bulldogs with 674 yards rushing, but Swift, who has battled injuries and finally seems to be at full strength, has gained 622 yards. Swift has also been an effective weapon in the passing game with 17 receptions for 161 yards.
“When you have somebody whos just as good as you playing next to you, it pushes you every single day,” Holyfield said. “I know I cant take a day off because hes not going to take a day off.”
Georgia faces Auburn (6-3, 3-3) on Saturday in the 122nd renewal of the Deep Souths oldest rivalry.
The Tigers certainly know what theyre up against.
“Swift and Holyfield kind of resemble the backs theyve had in the past,” defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. “Its always a challenge.”