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August 31, 2011

Crowell Would Be in Rare Company

This Saturday, Isaiah Crowell could make history, joining pictured Danny Ware and just
four other Georgia running backs by starting a season-opening game as a true freshman.  
With the season opener only days away, apparently tailback Isaiah Crowell is in position to start against Boise State, but the question still remains (at the time of this posting) if he will or not.

Crowell figures to get the load of the carries against the Broncos, so it really doesn't matter whether he is in the lineup or not when the Bulldog offense first takes the field.  However, if the true freshman does happen to start on Saturday, he'll be given an opportunity very few players have experienced at Georgia.

In 2004, Danny Ware became the first true-freshman tailback/halfback to start a season-opening game for the Bulldogs in 61 years.  In a 48-28 win over Georgia Southern, the newcomer shined, rushing for 135 yards on 18 carries and three touchdowns.

For decades, Georgia's Charles "Rabbit" Smith was given credit to starting at one of the two halfback positions as a true freshman in the 1943 season opener against Presbyterian.  Smith rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown on just five carries, caught two passes, and also intercepted two passes on defense; however, it was in a reserve role.  In actuality, it was another freshman, and not "Rabbit," to start the game for Georgia at running back.

Against Presbyterian, according to newspaper accounts and the official NCAA statistics sheet, Bobby Hague started at quarterback for Georgia, Bill Poole at fullback, Edgar Bratton at wingback - all merely true freshmen and for good reason - while Johnny Cook, another 17-year-old newcomer, started at the Bulldogs' tailback position.
Including Johnny Cook (center with dark jersey),
every Bulldog true-freshman running back has scored
at least one touchdown in a season-opening start.

In a year he'd lead the nation in passing, Cook completed 12 of 20 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.  He also rushed for a touchdown, returned four punts for 50 yards, punted eight times, and made what would be an SEC single-game record four interceptions in a 25-7 Georgia upset victory.

As mentioned, it would be more than six decades later that another Bulldog true-freshman running back started a season opener for Georgia after Cook did so for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

In the history of UGA football, on the whole, it has been somewhat difficult for a true freshman to play, much less start at a skill position for the first game of a season. 

Beginning with the inception of the sport at the school in the 1890s until the early 1900s, Georgia teams were primarily made up of juniors, seniors, and students of the university's law school, many of whom had played football as undergraduates at other schools.

During the 1920s, UGA's freshman football program began and for the next fifty years, besides the wartime seasons of 1943 and 1944, rarely a Bulldog frosh saw playing time.  Starting after the Korean War and until 1972, no newcomer saw the field as freshmen were ruled ineligible to play by the NCAA.

That leaves only a few windows of time for first-year players to see varsity action.  In fact, if Crowell was to start this Saturday, it would be only the sixth time (by my count) in 118 season openers a true freshman has started at running back for the Bulldogs.  Prior to Ware and Cook, the other instances:

KARL BOHREN (1920): In the season opener of the 1920 - a 40-0 rout of The Citadel - true freshman Bohren got the start at left halfback.  The "speedy" newcomer scored the final touchdown of the game on a 30-yard rush.  A week later, there was talk of Bohren moving to quarterback, but towards the end of the season, he remained at halfback as a reserve, where he scored two touchdowns against Florida.  Bohren's start in his very first game would also be the last start in his only season at Georgia.    

BOB McWHORTER (1910): McWhorter had plenty of practice for varsity play prior to coming to UGA.  While playing for Barnesville's Gordon Institute, a prep school before becoming a college, McWhorter scored versus Georgia Tech's varsity squad in a game in 1909 and played baseball against Georgia that spring.  Nevertheless, the native Athenian was regarded as a first-year college freshman for the 1910 Red and Black, and considering Georgia returned just five players from a 1909 team that officially won just one of seven games, the newcomer was promptly also regarded as a starter.

Starting at left halfback against Locust Grove, a football legend was born as McWhorter scored five touchdowns in a 101-0 blowout.  The following week against his former school, Gordon, McWhorter scored seven more touchdowns playing the right halfback position, where he'd remain and start at  the rest of his Georgia career.  McWhorter would eventually become the school's first All-American and my opinion of the Bulldogs' most valuable football player of all time.       

JOHN COX (1909): Freshman Cox, from Gainesville's Riverside Military Academy, arrived at UGA known more for his talents on a baseball diamond.  However, because the struggling football program was in dire need of gifted athletes, Cox was promptly practicing in the Red and Black's backfield.  Against the Atlanta Olympians in the first game of the 1909 season, Cox started at left halfback and scored the contest's only points on a five-yard touchdown run in a 5-0 Georgia victory.  Notwithstanding, his "true-freshman opening-game start" is in somewhat need of an asterisk...      

I've indicated before the fact UGA currently does not (but perhaps will in due time) acknowledge the contest against the aforementioned Atlanta club team, and three others mistakenly excluded, in its official records.  Presently, a 0-0 tie with The Citadel is officially recognized as the '09 season-opening game. 

Although Cox played during both the 1909 and 1910 seasons, scoring four total touchdowns while starting off and on at halfback, it is unclear if he actually started for the official season opener of '09 against The Citadel.

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