Hoover, AL—As phone calls go, it was one of the best Kirby Smart has ever received.
It happened last December and the second-year head coach at Georgia was entertaining a recruit. That’s when the phone call came from Nick Chubb, the Bulldogs’ splendid junior running back.
Chubb had recovered from a horrific knee injury in 2015 to run for 1,130 yards in 2016. Conventional wisdom for a running back in that position is to turn pro rather than risk another injury that could be career-ending.
But Chubb, from Cedartown, Ga., does not follow conventional wisdom—in football or in life.
“He said ‘You know, coach, I’m kind of different,’” Smart recalled during Tuesday’s first session of SEC Media Days. “’I’m not as motivated by the money. I want to come back.’”
Smart, he admitted, was hanging on Chubb’s every word.
“At that point I didn’t say very much because I didn’t want to screw it up,” said Smart.
Chubb’s return, along with fellow senior Sony Michel (850 yards in 2016), give Georgia what is arguably one of the best one-two running punches in all of college football. It is a big reason why the Bulldogs, 8-5 in Smart’s first season, are expected to be picked to win the SEC East by the media attending this event.
That potential, said Smart, is the biggest reason Chubb defied conventional wisdom and came back for his senior season.
“As talented as he is, he cares,” said Smart of Chubb. “He believes Georgia should be back on top and he wants to help us get there. He didn’t think he was at 100 percent (last season) and didn’t feel he would get his value (in the draft).”
Chubb certainly looked like he was back at 100 percent in last season’s opener against North Carolina, his first game since the gruesome knee injury at Tennessee. He simply overpowered the Tar Heel defense with 222 yards on 32 carries at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
But then his production dropped off. He had 80 yards on 20 carries against Nicholls State. He had 19 carries for 63 yards against Missouri and 12 carries for 57 yards in a loss to Ole Miss. Nursing a sprained ankle, he only carried once for three yards in the heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Tennessee in Athens. He only had nine carries in a loss to Florida. But then he finished strong with more than 100 yards in three of his final four games.
Chubb was asked if he was ever at 100 percent last season.
“I thought I was,” said Chubb. “But after some of the things I went through (last season) I feel a lot better now.”
As personalities, Chubb and Michel could not be more different.
Chubb comes from the sleepy community of Cedartown, Ga. (population 9,750), and this fall will receive his degree in Agriculture and Applied Economics. He is a man of few words.
Michel is from the South Florida town of Hollywood, and produces his own rap music. He enjoys talking to the media.
“There is a lot of balance to our relationship,” said Chubb. “He is really outgoing and I’m more of a quiet guy. He speaks for me and I hold it down for both of us.”
Michel said the best part of his relationship with Chubb is that they push each other and have embraced their roles as two of the primary leaders on this team.
“The attitude is that the standard is held high,” said Michel. “Nick and I are seniors and we’ve been down this road before. This is our chance to lead this team and lead them to something great.”
While there is no doubt about the talent of Chubb and Michel, the question in July is whether or not Georgia’s very young offensive line is going to be able to open holes against the better defenses in the SEC. Georgia lost three players who had started a total of 86 games from the 2016 line.
Smart says the running aspect of the game is changing in college football and that teams—and expectations–are going to have to adapt.
“To think now that you’re going to play against the top four defenses in the SEC and run the ball down their throats—that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Smart. “You have to find more creative ways to run the football. Do I feel better about it? Yes. We certainly have bigger people. We have good competition.”
Both Chubb and Michel understand their decision to return to school and play as seniors is not without risk, especially for Chubb. On Sept. 30 he returns to Tennessee, where the injury occurred on the first play of the game. Chubb insists that game will have no special significance for him.
“I can’t think about that now,” said Chubb. “I have to stay prayerful and work hard. I could get injured anytime whether it is in college or the NFL. I just don’t think about it.”