Editor’s note: The next Heisman Trophy winner won’t be announced for another few months, but with the season nearly upon us, it’s never too early to examine this year’s top candidates.
During the next week, SEC Country will conduct an in-depth analysis of five SEC Heisman contenders, highlighting their flaws and strengths, before compiling an overall ranking of potential winners. These aren’t necessarily the players most likely to win the Heisman; they are the most interesting candidates.
Most of the 128 FBS schools don’t even have one Heisman-caliber tailback on the roster. But in 2014, Georgia amazingly had two in its backfield: Todd Gurley, now an NFL superstar with the L.A. Rams, and a soft-spoken freshman from tiny Cedartown, Ga., named Nicholas Jamaal Chubb.
Gurley, as L.A. Rams fans now know, wowed SEC fans everywhere and has gone on to do the same in the pros. Chubb, meanwhile, might as well be the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre when it comes to Georgia running backs. He’s a throwback stud who has a second-gear burst and an impeccable sense of when to use it. The real eye-openers, though, are his pure strength and vision. He can leave an overzealous defender in the dust just as often as he leaves one sore.
That much was evident in 2014, when Chubb first stepped onto the scene, first as Gurley’s primary backup, then as the starter while Gurley was suspended (signing autographs for cash) and hurt (torn ACL). In Gurley’s absence, Chubb rumbled for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight starts, enough to earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors and finish as the league’s second-leading rusher.
In the wake of Gurley’s departure — and a horrific knee injury that cut short the momentum of his sophomore season — Chubb stands ready to resume his prominent role for the Bulldogs.
Just as Gurley wove an unlikely Rookie of the Year story in the NFL, can Chubb do the same in college by racing back from a serious knee-ligament tear and do Gurley one better by winning the Heisman Trophy?
Improved O-line instruction
Georgia overhauled almost its entire coaching staff after last season, so there are new faces aplenty. But the addition of Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman cannot be understated. He is considered one of the nation’s best in that role, and his expertise with the big boys will be a huge plus for Chubb. The Razorbacks never averaged fewer than 197 yards rushing per game in any of Pittman’s three years in Fayetteville. The man knows what he’s doing.
There was another Bulldogs back from small-town Georgia who captured a Heisman: Herschel Walker (you might have heard of him). Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich won the 1942 Heisman, and the Bulldogs have featured more recent running back stars, including Garrison Hearst and Knowshon Moreno. That, plus the recognition Chubb receives playing at a major SEC program, never hurts.
The Bulldogs who came before Chubb don’t matter much unless there’s a bright torch furthering their legacy. Chubb is doing just that. He already ranks ninth on the school’s all-time rushing leaderboard. His freshman rushing total was the fifth-most in a season by any Georgia player. And his 266-yard game against Louisville ranks second only to Walker (283) among single-game efforts. Chubb has been a star before and figures to be one again.
In all likelihood, 5-star freshman Jacob Eason will be this team’s starting quarterback sooner rather than later. And while few doubt whether Eason’s talented arm will hold up in the SEC, new coordinator Jim Chaney won’t have Eason chucking it 40 times a game, either. (Looking back, you’ll see that when Chaney was coaching Tyler Bray at Tennessee, the freshman averaged slightly fewer than 25 passes per game.) Without much depth at running back, Georgia should rely heavily on Chubb this year, and the junior bruiser has shown he can shoulder a big load (219 carries in 2014).
Bonus round: Impressive origins
This won’t affect his Heisman standing or how quickly he heals, but Chubb has a fascinating backstory that DawgNation’s Chip Towers chronicled last summer. Around the time of the Civil War, Chubb’s great grandfather founded “a small colony of free blacks” that was self-sustaining. Truly remarkable.
“They came and settled and they were never slaves,” Chubb said. “That’s the biggest part everybody in the family always talks about — never slaves. I’ve never really understood how they were capable of doing all those things during that time period.”
Yes, I am talking about the horrid angle at which Chubb’s left knee bent on the Neyland Stadium sideline last October. The title of the video linked here spells out the fear some had at the time: “career ending?”
Chubb’s career is not over, but whether he’s as explosive as he was pre-injury is the giant question looming over Georgia this preseason. This video, which Rivals.com reports is of Chubb, seems to indicate the Bulldogs’ battering ram is just fine — not sure I can say the same for that treadmill! — but graduating from treadmills to giant defensive tackles can’t be too easy.
The crew around him
The downside of Chubb taking handoffs from a freshman quarterback is obvious. What if Eason can’t keep defenses honest?
We saw as much happen with Greyson Lambert in last year’s Alabama game. Take away an 83-yard touchdown run in garbage time, and Chubb only managed 63 yards on 19 carries, while Lambert completed just 10 passes for 86 yards. At wide receiver, Georgia has no proven weapon outside of sophomore Terry Godwin. And Pittman may decide to overhaul the offensive line to add the types of blockers he prefers: big, mean maulers. That transition could take time, and Heisman voters aren’t a patient bunch.
UGA’s 2016 schedule features the nation’s No. 23, No. 25, No. 28, No. 33 and No. 45 rushing defenses from last season (Ole Miss, Florida, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, respectively). There could be a couple of cakewalks mixed in to balance things out — North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky all have had major issues defending the run — but Chubb and the men blocking for him will need to dominate their traditionally stout SEC foes in order to have a shot at the Heisman. That’s asking a lot.
- Sept. 24 at Ole Miss
- Oct. 1 vs. Tennessee
- Oct. 29 vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
- Nov. 12 vs. Auburn
Will Contend If
The knee is right, the line plays tight and Eason can be just all right.
Bovada Odds: 16/1
My Odds: 20/1
Chubb’s talent is undeniable. He carried a streak of 13 straight 100-yard efforts into the game that ended his season, and with Georgia providing him the best medical care possible, the questions about his knee are reasonable, but probably too frequently asked. I think he’ll be good to go.
Whether his offensive teammates can play up to the Chubb standard is another question entirely. They’ll get him past 1,000 yards without too much trouble, but I expect the Heisman to float just out of Georgia’s reach in 2016.