ATHENS — Isaiah Crowell is back in the Georgia lineup.
Now, the freshman has to show he can stay there.
Crowell, who leads the No. 14 Bulldogs and ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference with 689 yards rushing, has largely lived up to the hype when he's on the field. But disciplinary problems have marred his debut season. Last week, he and two other tailbacks had to sit out a victory over New Mexico State after reportedly failing drug tests.
"When you take away playing time, it hits a guy hard," senior tight end Aron White said Tuesday. "That can bring you back to earth in an instant. Hopefully, he will come back this week with a tremendous amount of focus. I think it's going to be good for him at the end of the day."
Crowell will start Saturday's crucial game against No. 24 Auburn, which could bring the Bulldogs a step closer to clinching a spot in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs (7-2, 4-2 SEC) have won seven in a row to take over first place in the East, and they can wrap up the division title by winning their next two games against Auburn (6-3, 4-2) and Kentucky.
There's no doubt Crowell has been a spark to the Georgia offense, showing speed, quickness and plenty of dazzling moves in the open field. But his actions away from the public eye have been troubling.
Early on, he failed to show for a scheduled media session and was brought back to the athletic building after 10 p.m. to meet with reporters. Then, he was held out of the first quarter against Vanderbilt, apparently for some sort of violation of team rules. Finally, his biggest blunder: a positive drug test that resulted in an automatic one-game suspension under athletic department rules.
Last week, Crowell was seen lugging around a heavy sled on the sideline while his teammates practiced. He was back on the field Monday, ready to help the Bulldogs complete their turnaround from an 0-2 start.
"He got in the huddle and we were like, 'Hey, welcome back,'" quarterback Aaron Murray said. "I asked him if he was ready and he just said, 'Give me the ball and let me do my thing.' He's pumped up. He's excited. He's ready to go. We're not worried. I know when we get the ball in his hands, he's going to make some great plays for us."
Coach Mark Richt said he's confident that Crowell has learned a valuable lesson for all his mistakes. He compared it to the normal bumps in the road that any freshman goes through, though it seems a bit more serious than that.
"It's hard to be a true freshman in major college football," Richt said. "This first semester, there are so many things being asked of them. You've got all the academic responsibilities. Of course going to class, but also we have tutoring sessions, we have academic mentors, study hall. There's just a lot of academic support involved in that freshman year. We do micromanage our freshmen. We want them to get off to a good start academically, so because of that there is an awful lot of time and things he has to be held accountable to."