Milton & Co. try to keep Georgia running

Updated: August 22, 2003, 8:37 PM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- Tony Milton has gotten used to those perplexed looks. C'mon, you're not really a Georgia running back, are you?

"People laugh at me all the time," Milton said. "I never go out anymore because people laugh at me, say I must have stole Tony Milton's ID. ... They expect me to be 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. We'll, I'm 5-9, 200 pounds. There's nothing I can do about it."

Milton may be small in stature, but the 11th-ranked Bulldogs are counting on him to carry on a proud school tradition: the star tailback. If he can't do the job, there's a talented but inexperienced group of runners behind him, just itching for a shot at becoming the next Herschel Walker or Garrison Hearst.

Coach Mark Richt would gladly settle for someone as productive as last year's tailback. Musa Smith rushed for 1,324 yards and was MVP of the Sugar Bowl, when the Bulldogs wrapped up the first 13-win season in school history.

Smith had another year of eligibility but decided to turn pro. He was drafted in the third round by the Baltimore Ravens.

Back in Athens, Milton -- who was Smith's backup -- is favored to take over as the starter when Georgia opens the season Aug. 30 at Clemson. But the diminutive sophomore isn't taking anything for granted.

"There's a lot of stuff I've got to work on," Milton said. "I think the No. 1 job is still up in the air. I'm still trying to earn it. "

There are plenty of other candidates. The coaching staff is very high on redshirt freshman Michael Cooper and true freshman Kregg Lumpkin. Junior Ronnie Powell, who has played sparingly his first two seasons, is also in the mix.

"We have four athletes who are capable of going into the game," said Ken Rucker, the team's new running backs coach. "I'm hoping all four guys will be available to help us in that first ballgame. It's going to be hot up there. We're going to need them."

Milton, who overcame long odds just to get to Georgia, is the only returning back with any real experience. He rushed for 314 yards as a redshirt freshman, usually getting in the game in long-yardage situations.

But he's best remembered for his first college start at Kentucky. Filling in for the injured Smith, Milton rushed for 78 yards on 18 carries and delivered the block of the year to keep a blitzing defender off quarterback David Greene, who was able to throw a touchdown pass in a 52-24 victory.

"I can hold my own," Milton said. "I hear people say I'm too small, that I can't do it. But that block at Kentucky stands for itself, but I'm doing stuff like that in practice everyday. People just don't see it."

Rucker agreed.

"He's had experience, he's been in big games and he's stronger than he looks," the coach said. "He really surprises you."

Lumpkin, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a high school junior, is the player most Georgia fans want to see on the field right away. But the 6-1, 200-pound freshman has been slowed in preseason practice by a hamstring injury, preventing him from making a strong run at the starting job.

Cooper (5-11, 223 pounds) has given Milton his biggest challenge, moving up to No. 2 on the depth chart and getting some work with the first team.

Cooper was highly regarded after his prep career, but he struggled to learn the offense and was redshirted last season. He also had to deal with sickle cell trait, a blood disorder that showed up during his first physical and can affect endurance.

Cooper said he needed a year off to get adjusted to college.

"I didn't look at it negatively," he said. "It gave me a chance to learn the system. This is a tough system. I needed some time. It was good for me."

As for the medical condition, it's not a factor, Cooper insisted.

"It doesn't inhibit me from doing the things I need to do," he said. "It's just a fact. I have it, and it's under control."

While many observers are questioning whether Georgia will be able to run the ball effectively -- especially with an all-new offensive line, as well -- Milton and Co. plan to carry their share of the load.

"I think it's similar to last year," Milton said. "Musa had only rushed for about 500 yards (actually 548) the year before. I rushed for about 300 last year. He had a little bit of experience. I've got a little bit of experience. Basically, it's the same situation all over again."

Georgia can only hope it plays out the same way.

"I'd love to run for 1,300 yards and have the guy behind me run for 300," Milton said. "That would be a beautiful thing."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index