George Washington Carver High School football star Isaiah Crowell holds a bulldog puppy aloft after announcing that he plans to attend the University of Georgia to play football Wednesday at the high school.
ATHENS -- Tailbacks Caleb King and Washaun Ealey don't have long to impress Georgia coach Mark Richt.
With top signee Isaiah Crowell arriving on campus this summer, King and Ealey are already battling for snaps with the first-team offense in spring practice.
"Right now," King said this week, "we're all competing."
He knows Richt and other coaches won't wait very long in August to let Crowell earn the starting job.
"He'll get a chance to show what he can do, and the other guys need to solidify as much playing time as they can before he shows up," Richt said. "We're going to see what (Crowell) can do."
Coming off their first losing record in 14 years, the Bulldogs are determined to improve their running game dramatically. Georgia ranked 73rd in rushing last season.
So instead of waiting to see if Crowell lives up to his billing as the nation's top incoming freshman running back, King and Ealey must show Richt they're still relevant over three weeks of spring drills.
Both had chances to become the full-time starter last year and neither succeeded. Ealey was arrested in August and King in September on separate traffic charges. And though they split the starts in all but one of Georgia's games and combined to average 5.3 yards per carry, both have continued to make bad decisions off the field.
King served a suspension in December for skipping a fifth academic meeting. He missed most of the practices leading up to the Liberty Bowl and wasn't allowed to play in the loss to Central Florida.
"I really don't think I can speak upon that," King said. "It was a mistake and it won't happen again."
Getting back on the field Thursday, as Georgia held its first spring workout, gave King an emotional release.
"For me, especially, it had been a while since I
Ealey, who was suspended for three weeks from football activities in February for disciplinary reasons, declined interview requests. Richt, though, liked what he saw of Ealey in practice, saying, "He gave great effort, probably as good as anyone."
King remembers how, five years ago, he arrived in Athens as the "next great tailback." Some recruiting services ranked him the No. 1 overall player in Georgia, but King believes injuries and other circumstances kept him from maximizing his potential.
He says he's embraced Crowell as a teammate, welcomes the competition and occasionally trades text messages with the senior at Carver-Columbus (Ga.) High School.
"I definitely understand what he's going through and what's happening right now," King said. "You've still got to come in and work hard. because the rest of us are working hard. Me, Carlton Thomas, Washaun Ealey, we're all busting our tails. Once (Crowell) comes in, he's going to do the same thing, but I'm going to try to get him under my wing and go from there."
Now it seems King, a rising senior, and Ealey, a rising junior, must create whatever leverage they can on the field. King wants to prove durable after missing two games with an ankle sprain. Ealey wants to prove reliable after losing two critical fumbles near the goal line in road losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Time seems to be running out on both King and Ealey. Richt is already imagining what Crowell can do despite the learning curve he will face in pass protection, route running and other nuances.
Richt doesn't doubt what Crowell can do as a tailback.
"Most great backs, if you hand them the ball, they're the kind of back that can help you win," Richt said. "So Isaiah, we think, has those skill sets and he's going to get a chance to show what he can do, and these other guys need to solidify as much playing time as they can before he shows up."