ATLANTA – Georgia coach Kirby Smart's plan for a deep running back corps was based on more than making it through a 12-game regular season.
Smart wanted his backs to be fresh for the College Football Playoff. The No. 1 Bulldogs will take a group of four running backs, led by Kenny McIntosh, into the Peach Bowl semifinal against No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday.
McIntosh has started 12 games for Georgia (13-0) and leads the Bulldogs with 709 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. At times, however, it's difficult to distinguish the senior's hold on the No. 1 role because Daijun Edwards is a close second, with 681 yards and eight touchdowns.
Kendall Milton and Branson Robinson have combined for more than 800 rushing yards and eight scores. That depth gives the defending national champion Bulldogs a strong running complement to quarterback Stetson Bennett's passing game.
The depth and balance at running back and other skill positions is Georgia's answer to Ohio State's high-scoring offense led by quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Smart says his plan at running back is about “health and necessity” and is based on an examination of Southeastern Conference offenses.
“Throughout our conference we’ve done studies, and very few backs have made it through the entire year with a large burden,” Smart said. “They tend to get injured. ... We try to build it where three to four backs can contribute and play.”
Georgia's best chance at making a run for another national title may be provided by its depth at running back and other skill positions.
“We don’t want to get into this part of the season and not have depth,” Smart said. “That’s what the rotation provides us.”
Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg said the Georgia running backs boast similar skills and strengths.
“Some are faster than others, but I’d say overall they’re all great running backs,” Eichenberg said.
Georgia has taken a similar approach at other skill positions.
Starters also are bracketed with “OR” designations on Georgia's depth chart at wide receiver and even at tight end, where starter Brock Bowers was the John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top player at the position. Massive Darnell Washington (6-7, 265) and freshman Oscar Delp provide good reason to consider two-tight end sets.
“Kind of a friendly competition,” Bowers said when asked about the depth at the position.
Bowers then paused.
“I don’t know about friendly, but it’s a mutual competition between everyone competing for spots,” he said. “Extra competition just makes everyone better. It definitely helps out on the practice field, too.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day says Georgia's depth, especially after losing a record 15 NFL draft picks from last year's national championship team, is proof that Smart and his staff “have done a great job recruiting.”
“There’s guys who roll in the front, there’s guys who roll in the back end, multiple running backs, multiple wide receivers,” Day said. “So when you’re playing against a really good team who plays with a lot of depth and has recruited really well, that’s one of the things you have to prepare for. What does that mean? Well, you just have to know that you’re not going to just hone in on one or two guys. You’ve got to be aware of more than one of those guys, and that’s the sign of a good team.”
Ohio State also has utilized a committee approach at running back.
“Most of it’s been by originally by design, but then with the injuries that we’ve had a couple times with those guys, they’ve all practiced well,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.
The Buckeyes lost their second-leading rusher, TreVeyon Henderson, to foot surgery. Leading rusher Miyan Williams has been slowed by a leg injury, but “had a really good go” in Monday's practice, Wilson said.
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