Photo Credit: Rob Poston/UGA Athletics
Senior safety Dominick Sanders takes the field before his last home game against Kentucky.
The best part of living Athens isn't the scenic locale, the plethora of bars, the vibrant and diverse music scene or the world-class dining. It isn't even the pride that comes with calling a community as wonderful as the Classic City home. The best part of Athens is the people you meet, get to know and learn to love who instill that pride in you.
On Saturday, in Georgia's 42-13 victory over Kentucky in the final game of the season at Sanford Stadium, we got a chance to say goodbye to a group of those people, the Georgia football senior class. You may have never met many or any of them, but if you pay attention to Georgia football, you know them well, and you know how much they mean to Athens. Their performance Saturday was a fitting curtain call between the hedges.
First among them is Nick Chubb, who ran for 151 yards and two touchdowns in his final home game as a Dawg. I still vividly remember his first game in Athens, against Clemson in 2014, when he rushed for 70 yards on four carries. In the midst of the hype around Todd Gurley being the next Herschel Walker, Chubb staked his name to that claim. Even the way he moved looked like Walker—the way he relished contact, kept his legs moving and drove defenders back. The only words I could think while watching that performance were, “My God, a freshman.”
Chubb proved to be the best tailback in Athens since Walker. His 4,469 career rushing yards (and counting) are the second-most in Georgia history and fourth-most in SEC history, behind Walker in first in both cases. By the time the season ends, he'll be second all-time in the SEC. We're going to remember what Chubb did as Bulldog for a mighty long time.
Then there's Sony Michel, one of the most underrated players in UGA history. Chubb overshadowed Michel for much of their careers, but Michel has been nothing short of brilliant as a Dawg. Against Kentucky, he ran for 87 yards and three touchdowns to give him 818 yards and 12 scores this season and 3,229 yards for his career. At any other program he'd be the No. 1 back and get the bulk of carries. But Michel was always humble and happy to split carries in Athens, and he always got his regardless of how many times he touched the ball.
Chubb and Michel were higher-profile returns, but I'd argue linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy were more important. They led by example and set the tone for this defense's disciplined and aggressive style, helping make it one of the best in college football. Dominick Sanders is one of the best ballhawks to ever wear a G on his helmet. Aaron Davis went from walk-on to starter and snagged an excellent interception against the ‘Cats. Isaiah Wynn has shuffled around the line for four years before becoming one of the best left tackles at Georgia in the last decade. Big John Atkins has thanklessly held down the middle of the defensive line for a few seasons.
Jeb Blazevich went from pass-catcher extraordinaire as a freshman to a blocking tight end his final three years and never complained once. Javon Wims has made the most spectacular catches I've seen from a Dawg since A.J. Green. Cameron Nizialek transferred Columbia and became one of the best punters in the SEC.
What these guys mean to Athens isn't limited to the gridiron. Look at the work they've done with local organizations such as Extra Special People and Camp Sunshine. Watch them interact with those kids. Watch the smiles they create. Then tell me they aren't vital members of the Athens community as well as football stars.
The last four seasons have been rough at Georgia, from heartbreaking losses to coaching changes and everything between. But these guys turned it around. They had one of the best seasons in 30 years, brought the community together, and created a path to success for Georgia football can follow for years to come.