Some 80,000 Georgia fans gathered in Sanford Stadium Saturday night to find out if there's life after Herschel. Among the onlookers was ol' No. 34 himself, who sat high above the field in a private box. Walker is still a part-time resident of Athens—he's taking a biology course, and construction on his new condominium about four miles from the Georgia campus has just been completed—and he was excited about seeing his former teammates in action. Down on the field, though, a No. 34 in the Bulldogs' colors was nowhere to be found. "Nobody asked for it," said Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, "and I don't know whether we would've given it out anyway. On the other hand, maybe we would've. I'd liked to seen the sonofagun who had that kind of confidence."
And it's probably just as well no one did. Yes, the Dawgs discovered, there's life after Herschel, but in a decidedly lower form, which is to be expected. Without a determined defense led by a rogue named Hoage and a driving rain that hurt UCLA's passing game, the Bulldogs would not have escaped with a 19-8 opening-game victory over the Bruins, last season's Rose Bowl champions.
Georgia squeezed only 102 yards out of its tailback, who was finally revealed to be none other than Leonard Zelig, the Human Chameleon. Every time Walker turned to have a word with his boxmates, who included wife Cindy and Dooley's wife, Barbara, he would find a different tailback out there when his gaze returned to the field. Dooley used four, none of whom resembled No. 34. But then a Walker impersonation would have been too much for even Zelig.
The Bulldogs' 20th straight regular-season victory wasn't secure until Safety Charlie Dean intercepted a Rick Neuheisel pass and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown with 18 seconds remaining. At the time of the misguided throw, UCLA was camped at Georgia's 32-yard line, trailing 12-8. The Bruins had no time-outs left, but their plight was hardly hopeless, if only because the law of averages was with them. Already in the second half they had advanced to Georgia's six-yard line, its 32 and its eight without scoring a point. In the first half UCLA had lost a TD on an illegal procedure penalty and had come away with only two John Lee field goals. But when Dean stepped in front of a weakly thrown pass in the flat, no one was in front of him.
September 11, 1983
Apparently defense will have to carry the Dawgs, at least until the situations at tailback and quarterback—incumbent John Lastinger and sophomore Todd Williams, who shared time Saturday, are engaged in a two-man hairpull for the latter job—are straightened out. Never mind that the defense included eight new starters; as long as senior All-America Terry Hoage is in the lineup, everything will be fine. From his roverback spot, Hoage blitzed quarterbacks, covered running backs man-to-man, met fullbacks at the line of scrimmage and brought down tailbacks in the open field. He finished with 12 tackles, two sacks and an uncalculated number of Excedrin headaches imposed on UCLA's offensive players.
The offense had no such leader. If Dooley is honestly undecided about his quarterback—the feeling here is that he'll soon choose the wide-open option talents of Williams over the more conservative style of Lastinger—he's sincerely baffled by what to do with all his tailbacks. "Yes, it's better to have only one," says Dooley. "But lots of teams have two." But, Vince, you have four. "Well, we'll eventually try to cut that in half, somehow."
The starter against UCLA was senior Barry Young, who gained 31 yards on 11 carries. Young has seen more action than the other three, but virtually all of it has been at fullback, the position from which he helped Walker, his roommate the last three years, rush for 1,752 yards and win the Heisman Trophy in 1982. As Walker said before the kickoff, "Barry can play. Don't forget, he was the Georgia tailback before I was." That's because Young graduated early from Swainsboro (Ga.) High and attended the Bulldogs' spring practice before his freshman year. Once Dooley was moved to say, "Young does certain things better than Herschel Walker." Perhaps he was referring to playing backgammon, a game that Young taught Walker and that is a source of enduring rivalry between them.
Inevitably, Young was switched to fullback, and he expected to be there again this year until academic troubles benched Melvin Simmons, the heir apparent at tailback. "I came here as a tailback, and I'd like to be the tailback," says Young. "Now that Herschel's gone, the scouts are going to be able to look at me closer." Yes, but what they'll see is a fullback. Though Young ripped off 24 yards on three carries during Georgia's first series, his lack of speed was glaringly evident. Henceforth, look for Young to play mostly at fullback, where he and converted Tight End Scott Williams, the Dawgs' top ground-gainer on Saturday with 43 yards, will make an effective tandem.
The second tailback to run against UCLA was sophomore Keith Montgomery, who was used primarily as a kick returner last season. Montgomery ran for 25 yards on seven carries in the first half, but his fumble late in the second period at his own 20 led to a Lee field goal on the final play of the first half that cut Georgia's lead to 12-6. Montgomery did rush for key yardage on two of Georgia's three scoring drives in the first half. "It's like putting names in a hat and pulling them out," Montgomery said of the tailback derby. Look for his name to be pulled out less frequently as time goes on.
The third contender is freshman David McCluskey, who picked up 33 yards on eight attempts against the Bruins. It's on McCluskey's sturdy 6'2", 215-pound frame that most Georgia players seem determined to drape the raiment of Herschel. "He's got a chance to be a great one," says Lastinger. Adds Dean, "He's pretty close to Herschel right now. David's probably more agile, but he doesn't abuse people as much as Herschel. I think he'll be just as good when he gets his technique down." Right. And you should see all the dancers who can move like Michael Jackson.
Nonetheless, McCluskey remains the best bet to reach the top of the crowded depth chart, though not until Dooley thinks it's wise to move a freshman into the glamour position; even Walker didn't start his first game. McCluskey can run inside, which is what he did as a wishbone fullback in high school, and he also has the speed (4.6 in the 40) to go outside. "He's got the best raw talent for the position," says Georgia Offensive Coordinator George Haffner.
The tailback roll was completed by Simmons, whom Dooley inserted midway through the third quarter. A senior, Simmons carried only twice for 13 yards, but that's two carries more than he expected. He missed a lot of preseason practice while working to complete two independent study courses that would give him the eight academic hours he needed to stay eligible. In fact, he pulled an all-nighter on Thursday to study for Friday's final in Sociology 105, and he found out his grade, a C, late that afternoon. Dooley hadn't been counting on him for the game.
Simmons had the misfortune to arrive in Athens the same time as Walker, and, unlike Young, he could never find another spot. He was tested at cornerback and switched to split end last year but didn't feel comfortable at either position. Further, over the years Simmons had failed to win Dooley's confidence. "He may be capable of gaining 140 yards in one game, but you don't know what he'll do in the next," Dooley told The Atlanta Constitution in July.
Dooley is almost certain, however, to find out soon what Simmons will do next, perhaps by alternating him with McCluskey. Simmons' talent mandates that he get a chance to run with the ball in his final season. Even Walker, who refused to name a favorite in the tailback sweepstakes—though one would suspect he's rooting for his old roomie—singled out Simmons. "Nobody was more aware of Melvin's talent than I was," he said. "Sometimes I worried about it. Sometimes I thought he had too much talent, and he could take my job away."
Eventually one of the tailbacks will step forward to take charge, and the Walker Era will be officially over, though not forgotten. As it is, the Bulldogs have adjusted well to Walker's departure, perhaps because fate forced them to. Several injuries, the most crushing being Safety Jeff Sanchez' broken arm, which will sideline him for the season, coupled with Lastinger's uphill battle to rehabilitate a left knee that required surgery in April, drew much of the attention away from memories of ol' 34.
Neither did the Georgia fans fall into a deep funk over Walker's departure. About 1,000 more season tickets were sold this year than in '82, and the order forms went out after Walker had defected to the USFL. The pregame atmosphere around Athens was much the same as it had been in Walker's years. On Friday afternoon videotapes of old Georgia games ran nonstop at Bulldog Sporting Goods on Baxter Street, and Athens was just as unfriendly for the opposition. When UCLA bused in from Atlanta Airport on Friday evening, the Bruins were greeted by a sign above the entrance to Cycle World bicycle shop on the outskirts of town: UCLA: UGLY CALIFORNIANS LEAVE ATHENS. And, yes, the most obnoxious battle cry in all of college sports could still be heard: "How 'bout them...." You know the rest.
Certainly Walker's former teammates, who for three years had been the largest supporting cast this side of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, are eager to emerge from the shadow of No. 34. "It's a chance for us all to show how we can survive without Herschel," said Tight End Clarence Kay. "And we will survive."
They will indeed, but now and again there will be reminders of the days when Georgia had possibly the best running back in college history. Sports Information Director Claude Felton will be reminded when he's not entertaining six to eight interview requests per day. Dooley will be reminded when it's third-and-one, a call that used to be so automatic that he would begin thinking about first down even before the third-down snap. Walker's teammates will be reminded at gut-check time, perhaps in the locker room before a key SEC game. "The thing you got from Herschel more than anything else was attitude," says Simmons. "He had a positive attitude. He picked everybody up. He was always ready."
And Haffner will be reminded every time he goes to the projector. "Most of the time you're too busy with today's problems to think about the past," says Haffner. "But once in a while I'll turn on the projector when I'm studying the back films, and there will be Herschel. I'll watch for a few minutes and say to myself, 'Man, that's how it was.' "
Man, it'll never be like that again.