ST. LOUIS – Todd Gurley was taking his time again. The St. Louis media was just getting used to it. A reporter from Georgia could only smile in recognition.
Practice had just ended after an early preseason practice, and it was interview time. Or at least it was supposed to be but Gurley was biding his time with a couple fans. Just as in college, the star tailback was more eager to talk to fans than the media.
“Here he comes,” a media relations staffer began saying. “Oh, wait, hold up again.”
More waiting. A few grumbles from reporters, but also a few laughs. The wait would last about 10 minutes before Gurley finally came over.
No one left. You wait on a star. Even an injured one, as the St. Louis Rams decided long ago.
Gurley is willing to take his time too. He won’t play in St. Louis’ opener on Sunday. Still only 10 months removed from knee surgery, but on the verge of starting his NFL career, Gurley is taking the long view.
“Yeah, I want to be out there. But it’s no rush,” Gurley said. “Ten years from now, no one’s gonna remember what I’ve done the first six games. So it’s about longevity and trying to get out there and trying to go through the whole season.”
Gurley was cleared to practice on Monday, but when he will make his pro debut is uncertain. It also may be awhile before he’s at full strength, back to the form that made him the second-leading rusher in Georgia history. The Rams knew all this going in, and used the 10th overall pick on him – the highest a running back had gone in three years – anyway.
Alec Ogletree, the Ram linebacker who was a junior at Georgia when Gurley was a freshman, recalled his reaction as he was watching this year’s draft. Like almost every NFL player, they’re finding out along with everyone else who their team is picking.
“I jumped out of my chair,” Ogletree said. “I didn’t really think it was gonna happen, and I really didn’t think he was gonna last that long in the draft. He did, and we were able to get him.”
The result was a sort of weird trade: Gurley to the Rams, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to Georgia.
“I really didn’t think about that,” Gurley said, laughing. “But that was a cool thing for Georgia. The Rams get a plus, and Georgia gets a plus.”
Gurley still talks often to Keith Marshall, his classmate and fellow tailback. They compared notes on the offensive playbooks at Georgia and the Rams: Almost identical, Gurley reported.
He was also expecting big things out of Georgia again, and his old position.
“(Nick) Chubb deserves the recognition, he had a great season last year. But of course with Georgia running backs it doesn’t matter who’s there, everybody’s gonna get the job done,” Gurley said. “Everyone thought it was me and boom, Chubb stepped up. We’ve got Sony (Michel), Keith, (Brendan) Douglas and hopefully the new guys come in and do well too.”
General manager Les Snead had eyed Gurley for awhile. Even when the Rams were struggling early in the season, and thus positioned for one of the first few picks, Gurley was on his radar.
“This guy is special,” Snead remembered thinking as he watched Gurley rack up yards against Clemson, South Carolina and others. The four-game suspension didn’t derail Snead’s thinking. NFL teams don’t put much stock in NCAA stuff.
Snead flew down personally to watch Gurley’s return against Auburn. By this time, in November, the Rams had made a late run, and Snead knew they wouldn’t pick very high. And he was thinking that with the running back position devalued in the NFL, they would get a chance to pick Gurley.
“And then that night he gets injured,” Snead said. “And at that point I think: Awww, that would have been a nice pick. My fear then was that some team in the late 20s, early 30s, late first round is gonna get a great pick. He wasn’t going to escape the first round.”
Then the draft evaluation process started. Gurley’s stock fluctuated in NFL circles, but the Rams had zeroed in on him. Snead and his scouts watched every carry from Gurley’s career, from the touchdown return against Buffalo to the final carry against Auburn.
Gurley became the first tailback to go in the first round since Trent Richardson in 2012. Of course Richardson was a bust and is already out of the league.
The Rams are gambling that Gurley will be different.
“He’s everything you want in a back,” said Rams tight end Jared Cook, a former South Carolina player and Atlanta native. “He’s a big guy that can move. You really hardly ever see that anymore. Most of the backs that you see are big but aren’t that fast, or are fast but not that big. …
“He’s gonna stay healthy, and he’s gonna do big things for us.”
But it doesn’t have to be right away. It’s not a lack of patience, but rather a realism that’s imbued in Gurley, who, when he arrived at Georgia, wasn’t as ballyhooed as Marshall.
Gurley was asked if he’s reflected on going from that to all this, the glitz and glamour of the NFL.
“It hasn’t really hit me too much, because of course I’m still injured. I’m not really able to be out there and perform or do anything that I want,” he said. “But I’ve definitely thought about it. It’s a big accomplishment for me. Just gotta keep moving forward.”