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 turn up for a scheduled media session and wound up being 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.
Crowell wouldn’t discuss specifics of his case, but he did apologize to “my family, fans and the Bulldog nation.”
“I made a mistake and it will never happen again,” he said. “I want to prove to the fans that they can trust me.”
Last week, Crowell was seen lugging around a heavy sled on the sideline while his teammates practiced. But 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.
“Then you’ve got football. You’re competing at a level that you’ve never competed at before. You’re learning things that you’ve never learned before. You’re being pushed by your coaches. You’re being pushed to your limits because now there’s a lot of great athletes out on the field compared to maybe what it was like in high school.”
For Crowell, the transition has clearly been difficult at times. Richt insists that’s not unusual.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a freshman navigate it without hitting a wall somewhere along the way or just shake his head and say, ‘What the heck happened?’” the coach said. “All these kids are going through some tough times. I’ve got a lot of faith in Isaiah, and I think Isaiah is going to do real well for Georgia.”
Crowell certainly came in with a lot of expectations, a top-level recruit who won over Georgia fans right away when he revealed his choice of schools by breaking out an actual bulldog. Richt predicted that Crowell might be on the field for the season’s very first snap, even before last year’s primary tailbacks — Washaun Ealey and Caleb King — had left school.
Richard Samuel began the season as the starter, but Crowell moved to the top of the depth chart by the third game. Now, the job is all his with Samuel expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury.
“He’s a guy who came in with a tremendous amount of talent,” White said. “Anytime you have a player that talented, you have to worry about him getting complacent, not having that drive when he feels like he’s got the position locked up and stuff like that. I feel this past week has maybe humbled him a little bit and brought him back into focus. Anytime someone takes away your playing time, well, that’s what you came to college for. That’s going to hit you hard.”
Crowell could be a major weapon against an Auburn team that has struggled to stop the run. The Tigers rank 10th in the SEC, allowing more than 185 yards per game.
“A big challenge,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “He was recruited very heavily coming out of high school for a reason, and that’s because he’s very, very good at what he does. He’s got great vision. He’s got really, really good balance. You can see week by week there’s a comfort level in there with him in terms of how effective he is and how comfortable he feels with his reads running the football.”
Crowell will face former high school teammate Gabe Wright, who now plays defensive tackle for the Tigers.
“We knew way before signing day that this thing was going to be big,” Wright said. “I don’t want to make this between me and him. I’ve still got 10 guys who are going to be running to the ball at the same time every play.”