Stand next to Sony Michel, and it seems difficult to fathom that this 5-foot-11, 215-pound rookie is one of the NFL’s most bruising inside rushers, a budding New England Patriots star who gained most of his team-leading 931 yards this season on between-the-tackles runs.
“It’s not always about size,” fellow Patriots running back James White said in the run-up to Super Bowl LIII against the Rams. “It’s about making your reads, hitting the hole hard, being able to make guys miss, and Sony is capable of doing all of those things.”
Michel, 23, is one of two former University of Georgia backs who will stage a mini college reunion Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where he’ll share the sport’s biggest stage with one-time Bulldog teammate Todd Gurley, 24, of the Rams.
Michel is the lesser of the two when it comes to fame and fortune — he’s in the first year of a four-year, $9.62-million rookie contract while Gurley, the 2017 NFL offensive player of the year, signed a four-year, $60-million extension last summer — but is clearly the hotter back entering Sunday’s game.
After carrying 16 times for 115 yards and a touchdown in an NFC divisional-round win over Dallas, Gurley disappeared in the NFC championship game win at New Orleans, rushing four times for 10 yards and a touchdown, fueling speculation he aggravated a knee injury that sidelined him for two December games.
Michel, part of a three-back rotation that includes White and Rex Burkhead, carried 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns in a divisional-round win over the Chargers and 29 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC title-game overtime win at Kansas City.
“Oh, that’s my little bro,” Gurley said of Michel, who was a freshman at Georgia in 2014, Gurley’s final year in school. “I remember when he first came in, he couldn’t run and catch. I had to teach him how to do all that stuff.”
“Yeah, I did,” said Gurley, who led the NFL with 21 touchdowns and ranked third with 1,251 yards rushing this season. “Hopefully, everything I taught him, he doesn’t do it and he just plays like he used to play before I taught him everything.”
Michel is here because the Patriots — drawn to his combination of power, speed, acceleration, instincts and pass-protecting abilities — took him with the 31st pick of last April’s draft, a selection some thought was a bit of a reach because of Michel’s shortcomings as a receiver and a potential knee issue.
Michel did little to silence those critics in August, when he underwent a procedure to drain his knee that knocked him out of the preseason and the first regular-season game.
But he had a breakout game in Week 4 against Miami, rushing 25 times for 112 yards in a 38-7 win. He had three more 100-yard games in the regular season and has been a star in the playoffs, leading a potent rushing attack that has racked up 331 yards and six touchdowns on 82 carries.
“He’s been awesome,” White said. “He missed those preseason games and the first game, he had people talking trash about him, saying he sucked, that he’s a bust, and he just went out there and worked hard and ignored the naysayers. He’s been a big bonus for us. He’s had some huge performances to help us get here.”
Georgia had three future NFL stars in that 2014 backfield, Gurley, Michel and then-freshman Nick Chubb, who rushed for 996 yards and eight touchdowns as a Cleveland Browns rookie this season.
Chubb starred on that 2014 Bulldog team, rushing 219 times for 1,541 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gurley had 911 yards and nine touchdowns in six games, his season cut short by a knee injury and a four-game suspension for accepting money to sign autographs. Michel rushed 64 times for 410 yards and five scores.
“I learned from his work ethic, his play-making ability and him doing his job the best he can,” Michel said of Gurley. “He’s a beast. He’s one of the best backs in this league, and he carries himself well.”
Michel, who grew up in Plantation, Fla., after his parents emigrated from Haiti, developed into a star at Georgia, finishing third on the Bulldogs’ all-time rushing list with 3,613 yards and 33 touchdowns in four years.
One of his biggest games came in a national semifinal playoff win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl after the 2017 season, when he rushed 11 times for 181 yards and had a 27-yard walk-off touchdown run in double overtime.
The Bulldogs lost to Alabama, 26-23, in overtime in the national title game, which was also played in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I don’t have any bad memories from that game,” Michel said. “That was the national championship. This is the Super Bowl. It feels good to be in the Super Bowl.”
Michel fumbled 12 times in his college career, but he’s fumbled only once for the Patriots this season.
“I’m just more conscious of it,” said Michel, who missed Weeks 8 and 9 because of a left knee injury. “Every coach focuses on the importance of ball security. Ball security is job security.”
Michel said he would not have had this kind of success without an experienced and effective offensive line that is “so good that they open holes that I can get a full head of steam to run through,” he said.
With only seven receptions for 50 yards, Michel is not much of a pass-catching threat. White handles most of the aerial duties out of the backfield, with a team-high 87 catches for 751 yards and seven touchdowns.
But it is Michel, often aided by the tenacious blocking of fullback James Develin and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has helped balance a Patriots offense that relied a little too much on the passing of quarterback Tom Brady in recent years.
The Patriots have run the ball 67% of the time Michel is on the field, practically telegraphing their plans to the opponent, but Michel has still averaged 4.5 yards a carry in the regular season and playoffs.
“He’s got a good run style that’s allowed us to be a physical football team, and he’s a very willing participant in blitz pickup,” New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of Michel. “He’s been able to add another element to our room in terms of his toughness and a style of play that we really enjoy.”