Georgia Tech RB Orwin Smith was sorely missed in last week's narrow 38-31 win against Duke.
ATLANTA — Georgia Tech's running back situation is more crisply defined than Georgia's four days before the annual battle for state bragging rights.
Coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday he expects one of his top backs, Orwin Smith, to return from a turf toe injury to play for No. 25 Georgia Tech in Saturday's game. Smith missed last week's win over Duke.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said "there is a chance" leading rusher Isaiah Crowell will return from his left ankle injury. Richt hasn't decided if backup Carlton Thomas will return from his latest suspension.
Smith said he "felt great" after participating in Tuesday's practice.
"I'm out there running smoothly," Smith said, adding the toe injury was "not at all" a problem in the practice.
Crowell had only two carries before leaving with the injury in No. 13 Georgia's difficult 19-10 win over Kentucky last week. The offense has been most productive with Crowell, a freshman who has 832 yards rushing.
Crowell and Thomas each topped 100 yards rushing in the Bulldogs' 45-7 rout of Auburn on Nov. 12. Brandon Harton had 23 carries for 101 yards and Georgia's only touchdown in last week's win over Kentucky, but the offense clearly missed its top two backs.
Asked Tuesday if running the ball is the key to Saturday's game, Richt said "it is for us offensively for sure.
"We always like to run the football, but you have to have backs who can do it and some backs who are willing to hang on to the football in the process. The thing about this game is every possession really is pretty crucial."
Crowell, Thomas and another running back, Ken Malcome, were suspended for Georgia's 63-16 win over New Mexico State on Nov. 5. Thomas also was suspended for Georgia's opening loss to Boise State for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Richt said Sunday that Crowell did not have substantial swelling in his left ankle, but the Bulldogs' tailback rotation remained unclear.
"I don't know the answer to that," Richt said. "We have to sort through it. It's just not cut and dry.
"I don't even know who is going to start. I don't even know who's going to play. We are working our way through it. We'll know more by the end of the week. Right this second I do not know exactly how it's going to come out."
Malcome and Harton, a former walk-on, lost fumbles against Kentucky, possibly hurting their chances for a prominent role against Georgia Tech.
"We have some guys who have to learn to hold on to the football," Richt said. "I just want to see them practice."
Georgia Tech boasts the nation's No. 2 rushing offense in Johnson's spread-option attack.
Smith, an A-back, has 570 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns and a gaudy average of 10.8 yards per carry. Smith is only the third-leading rusher on the team, trailing quarterback Tevin Washington and David Sims, a B-back.
Embry Peeples filled in for Smith and ran for 64 yards with a touchdown in the 38-31 win over Duke. Sims had 66 yards rushing and two touchdowns and Washington led the Yellow Jackets with 136 yards and a touchdown.
Georgia Tech's other options at running back include Roddy Jones, a senior, and Tony Zenon, a freshman.
The balanced running attack is a change from recent years when Anthony Allen, Jonathan Dwyer and Tashard Choice were the dominant leading rushers.
"I just think it's the nature of what we do," Johnson said. "Even though Orwin is a very good player and we're very hopeful we've got him back for the game, Embry filled in last week and it was pretty much about the same.
"It's a situation where those guys have taken advantage of their opportunities when they get the ball. We feel like we've got more than a couple guys who can play."
Smith is the team's leading kickoff return specialist and third-leading receiver.
Georgia Tech has had running backs top 1,300 yards in four straight years. In his first season as the starter, Washington 209 carries almost match the combined 212 carries for Sims, Smith and Peeples.
Georgia Tech's average of 324 yards rushing per game is No. 2 in the nation. Georgia's average of 81 yards rushing allowed per game also ranks second in the nation.