Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell (1) stiff arms Florida cornerback Cody Riggs (31) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP/Photo Stephen Morton)
ATHENS -- Mark Richt delivered a sobering mid-week evaluation of Georgia's top two available tailbacks.
"I think one of them knows the plays pretty good," Richt said. "I think the other one is learning at a very rapid rate."
That's anything but a normal November appraisal, but this has been anything but a normal week for the No. 18 Bulldogs.
Richt's first reference was to sophomore Brandon Harton, who at this time last year was a walk-on receiver.
Harton asked to move to tailback before spring practice, was awarded a scholarship in August, and has appeared in just one game this season. But he may start today as Georgia puts its six-game winning streak on the line against New Mexico State.
Freshman walk-on Kyle Karempelis, a Wesleyan grad who before this week was a scout team player, is the tailback attempting to rapidly catch up.
Richt and his staff had to scramble on Tuesday when leading rusher Isaiah Crowell and two backup tailbacks, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome, were suspended for one game for failing drug tests.
The suspensions were announced shortly after Richt disclosed Richard Samuel, the top backup who scored the go-ahead touchdown in last week's win over Florida, would miss at least four weeks following ankle surgery. The timetable means the junior is not expected to return in the regular season.
The suspensions and Samuel's injury combined to wipe out Georgia's top four tailbacks for the week.
Richt has tried to maintain an optimistic outlook for Georgia's running game.
"We'll be all right," Richt said. "We've just got to block a little better up front and hopefully make these guys feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. That's the goal."
One added blow to the Bulldogs' offense: Top wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell will miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury.
Despite the setbacks, Georgia (6-2) is heavily favored against New Mexico State (3-5). The Aggies are 0-13 against Southeastern Conference teams.
New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker already has scored one first for his program this season. The Aggies beat Minnesota 28-21 on Sept. 10 for the program's first win over a Big Ten team. Another highlight was the Aggies' third straight win over New Mexico, but New Mexico State is coming off back-to-back losses to Hawaii and Nevada.
"No rest for the weary," Walker said. "From Hawaii to Nevada to Georgia. This is murderer's row here.
"We've just got to get our guys to pony up and try to be as competitive as possible and then we'll see what happens."
Added Walker: "We just have to use the Minnesota game as an example as a BCS school. They can lose just like anyone else."
Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo may try some creative options to move the ball.
A deep position is tight end, and Richt suggested two-tight end formations with no backs. He could borrow from the depth chart at fullback to have Alexander Ogletree run the ball. He also could get the ball to defensive backs Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith, who have been successful in spot roles on offense.
"You have to challenge the rest of your team to pick it up, pick up the slack if there is any slack," Richt said. "The young guys will get this experience to play running back at the University of Georgia when they thought it probably wasn't very likely. All of a sudden they're getting an opportunity to do their thing, which is a great thing and something they dreamed of."
Harton (just 5-6 and 174 pounds) caught Richt's attention before the season. Harton was No. 3 on the depth chart, behind Samuel and Crowell, and was in line to play in the opening loss to Boise State before he suffered a sprained ankle in practice.
When leftover scholarships are awarded before the season, they usually are given to seniors. Richt said Harton was awarded a scholarship in August because "we felt like he could be productive for us."
Karempelis (5-9, 180) was a celebrated high school player at Wesleyan. He ranks sixth in state high school records with 93 career touchdowns.
On Wednesday, Richt called Karempelis "a good instinctive runner" but added "I would have to guess his mind is racing pretty hard right now, and his heart pumping too."
Georgia has played strong defense, especially against the run, in its six-game winning streak.
The biggest challenge today will be containing New Mexico State's passing game.
Aggies quarterback Matt Christian set a career high with 432 yards passing with three touchdowns in last week's 48-34 loss to Nevada, including seven passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns to Taveon Rogers.