Georgia's electric running back turning heads

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia football coach Mark Richt still remembers the day running back Knowshon Moreno showed up at the Bulldogs' football camp unannounced three summers ago.

"You knew he was a warrior as far as energy and work ethic," Richt said.

Richt knew nothing else about Moreno; the energetic tailback from New Jersey knew nothing about the Bulldogs.

On a whim, more than anything else, Moreno decided to attend Georgia's summer camp for elite prospects in 2005. He had never attended a college football camp before, and one of his good friends had selected Georgia as his destination. So Moreno boarded a train in New Jersey and arrived in Athens, about 15 hours later.

"I didn't know the trip was going to be so long," Moreno recalls.

The long trip proved to be worth the wait for Moreno and the Bulldogs, though. By the time Moreno left Georgia's summer camp, he was at the top of the Bulldogs' recruiting list, along with running back Caleb King, a highly regarded prospect from Atlanta.

"We wore him and Caleb out," Richt said. "I was thinking, 'You know what? These guys aren't coming to Georgia. We are killing them.' … It was a smoking hot day and we were grinding them all. Caleb and Knowshon were the two guys that were just competing harder and lasting longer than most of them. They both got after it and it was like, 'Wow, these guys are special.'"

Moreno has certainly been special for No. 9 Georgia this season. Going into Saturday's game against No. 23 Kentucky at Sanford Stadium, Moreno has run for 100 yards or more in four straight contests. He is second in the SEC with 110.4 rushing yards per game. Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy is the only other freshman in the country with more rushing yards per game, averaging 118.4 per contest.

With 1,104 yards in 10 games, Moreno is the first Bulldogs freshman since Herschel Walker in 1980 to run for 1,000 yards in a season. Walker also was the last Georgia player to run for 100 yards in five consecutive games in 1982.

"He's given them a new lease on life," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said last week, before Moreno ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-20 win over the then-No. 18 Tigers.

After losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, Georgia seemed headed toward a rather ordinary season. But thanks to Moreno's hard running, the Bulldogs have won four games in a row. If Georgia beats the Wildcats, and if the Volunteers lose one of their last two SEC games against Vanderbilt or Kentucky, the Bulldogs will win the SEC East and claim a spot in the SEC championship game against No. 1 LSU on Dec. 1 in the Georgia's Dome.

Even if Tennessee doesn't lose another conference game, the Bulldogs might be in position to claim a lucrative at-large berth in a BCS bowl game, if they beat Kentucky and rival Georgia Tech to finish the regular season at 10-2.

"Of course, the SEC race is back in everyone's mind," Bulldogs safety C.J. Byrd said. "We can't control what Tennessee does. But I definitely want another shot at the SEC championship."

Moreno, more than any other player, jump-started Georgia's championship hopes. He came into the season expecting to back up senior tailbacks Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin. But Lumpkin broke his thumb against Oklahoma State in the opener and then suffered a knee injury that will probably sideline him for the rest of the regular season. Brown, who has run for 497 yards and six touchdowns, broke his collarbone and missed three games before returning against Auburn.

When Brown and Lumpkin were each sidelined with injuries, Moreno became a workhorse. He ran 28 times for 157 yards in a 20-17 win at Vanderbilt, a game in which he became the first freshman to be named a team captain during Richt's seven-year tenure at Georgia.

Two weeks later against then-No. 9 Florida, Moreno ran a career-high 33 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-30 win, only the Bulldogs' third victory over the Gators in the past 18 meetings.

By then, Richt knew his freshman running back was pretty special.

"Every once in a while, you can see a guy on tape who just flat out loves it," Richt said. "Knowshon is one of those guys. It's contagious. A lot of guys love the game. A lot of guys play hard. But every once in a while, it's just so visible that this guy is jacked up, ready to go and wants some more."

Moreno's breakout season was so unexpected, the school doesn't yet sell replicas of his No. 24 jersey, which will be in stores soon because of high demand. Local vendors are already selling "Knowshon for Heisman" T-shirts.

"He looks the part," Bulldogs quarterback Matthew Stafford said.

Byrd said the rest of the Bulldogs knew about Moreno's talents last season, when the freshman was working on Georgia's scout team while redshirting. While the rest of the Bulldogs might have been going through the motions during a practice, Moreno was always going 100 miles per hour.

"I can remember him last year on the scout team, everyone was telling him, 'Man, just slow down. Just slow down,'" Byrd said. "But he only has one speed and it's full speed. His energy is contagious. It affects the offense, defense and the crowd. I think he does a great job of getting everybody into it and getting everybody excited."

After Moreno broke open a close game against Auburn with two touchdown runs in the third quarter, Tuberville compared him to former Tigers running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"He's been a workhorse," Tuberville said. "I noticed how many carries he's had. He's carried the ball a lot of times. When you get to this point in the season, they're not freshmen anymore. They know what this game is about. They know how tough it is, how they have to prepare. Just watching him, he's a playmaker. He runs the ball inside and outside, a lot like Carnell. He's a very tough kid and he'll have a future in this league."

With Moreno carrying the load, Georgia's future seems a lot brighter than it once did.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.