ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -Less than 10 months removed from a serious knee injury, Thomas Brown claims he never felt better.
He's backing it up on the field, too.
Georgia's senior running back is making a strong bid to reclaim the starting job in his final college season. If nothing else, he's likely to play a significant role in the Bulldogs' backfield-by-committee approach.
``I feel stronger, faster, quicker, more confident - everything,'' Brown said. ``I'm ready to roll like I did before.''
Brown tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while returning a kickoff against Vanderbilt last October, knocking him out of the final six games. After getting over the initial feelings of anger and disappointment, he got back to work.
He also did a little research. While the recovery period for such an injury can be a year or longer - and some players never make it all the way back - Brown focused on the reports that called for a shorter recuperation when there's no other damage beyond the ACL.
``You can go into it thinking negatively all through the rehab, thinking about what's going to happen when you come back: Am I going to be timid or not?'' he said. ``I never thought like that. I just thought I was going to come back better than I ever was before.''
The Bulldogs will be looking for improvement in their running game after averaging just 127.4 yards per game - a drop of nearly 35 yards from the previous season. Georgia hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Musa Smith in 2002.
Coach Mark Richt insists that he's not concerned about individual stats, only the cumulative numbers. The running game should improve if the Bulldogs cut down on their turnovers (they had 31 last season) and sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford builds on the progress he showed at the end of the season, which would loosen up opposing defenses.
``I don't think the problem is not having a 1,000-yard rusher,'' Richt said. ``The problem is when you don't have enough production at the running back position. But we're not too far off from some other years.''
In keeping with the theme since Smith left, the Bulldogs are unlikely to have one player emerge from the pack. Brown is contending for handoffs with fellow senior Kregg Lumpkin and a couple of highly touted freshmen, redshirt Knowshon Moreno and top recruit Caleb King.
Of course, Georgia's fans are eager to get a look at the new runners.
``I really don't pay much attention to that type of stuff,'' Brown said. ``Anytime someone new comes in, that's always going to be a hot topic. I just want to prove to myself that I can come back from an ACL.''
And, if he needs any advice, there's always Lumpkin, who missed the entire 2004 season with a similar injury.
``I told him it's going to take time,'' Lumpkin said. ``Every body heals differently. He may be feeling great, but it just depends how it heals. I told him to just go out there and don't even think about it. Just play ball.''
Lumpkin put his redshirt year to good use, working toward a degree that he received on schedule in the spring. Now, he can try to keep the starting job he had coming out of last season while working toward a second degree.
``It takes a lot of the burden off,'' said Lumpkin, who led the team in rushing with 798 yards. ``That's one thing that coach Richt always stresses: go ahead and graduate while you're here. It's hard to come back and graduate after you go to the (NFL). I was able to take advantage of the opportunity when I had to redshirt.''
While Lumpkin would love to get enough carries to rush for 1,000 yards, he has gotten used to the idea of sharing the load.
``We recruit a lot of good running backs each year, and you just kind of have to make everybody happy,'' he said. ``You want to let everyone prove to themselves that they can play at this level.''
When healthy, Brown knows he can play at this level, though he has yet to fulfill the promise he showed as a freshman. He appeared to be a star in the making when he rushed for 875 yards right out of high school, but he actually lost the starting job for a couple of games even before his injury last season.
Brown attributes his problems to a lack of patience. Instead of waiting for holes to develop, he often barreled right into the middle of the defense. While recuperating from his injury, he had plenty of time to think about what he had done wrong.
``I'm kind of thankful that it happened,'' he said. ``I got to start all over again, work on some of the problems I had before, and get bigger, stronger and faster.''
Yep, he's never felt better.

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