As we hunker down at home, wondering when (or if) this year’s college football season might be played, Dawgs fans are having to make do with savoring past glories, as in Saturday’s “Virtual G-Day” replay of last year’s win over Notre Dame.
Another blast from the past I’ve enjoyed recently was looking back at Todd Gurley’s career at UGA, prompted by his forthcoming “homecoming” (as he termed it) to become an Atlanta Falcon.
Sports pundits have debated what Gurley is likely to mean for the Birds. The former UGA tailback earned Rookie of the Year honors in his first NFL season, and was named to the Pro Bowl three times while with the Rams, but injuries have slowed down his on-field production of late.
However, regardless of what he does for the Falcons, Gurley occupies a special place in Bulldogs football lore. He ranks fourth in UGA career yardage, behind Herschel Walker and Gurley’s successors in Athens, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but that position should come with an asterisk: Gurley’s playing time during his three years at Georgia was limited by injuries.
And, had he not been suspended for four games in 2014 for an NCAA infraction involving autograph sales, he probably would have been the Heisman Trophy winner that season.
Gurley’s numbers for about two and a half seasons of on-field work at Georgia are pretty crazy, as he racked up 3,285 rushing yards on 510 carries, 65 pass receptions for another 695 yards, and 36 touchdowns total — all in just 30 games. When it comes to sheer talent, many fans and football observers (including me) rank Gurley behind only Herschel among UGA running backs.
When Gurley was healthy, he was absolutely amazing. Indeed, aside from Herschel, I never saw a back more capable of completely taking over a game than the guy with “Gurley II” on his jersey.
Chubb, who became Georgia’s starting tailback after Gurley tore his ACL, put it this way: “I’d rather have Todd. He’s a game-changer. … He can break one at any moment.”
An online video highlight reel I came across gives a taste of Gurley’s talents: He had tremendous vision, picking his way to find holes, breaking tackles, changing direction, and then shifting gears with a burst of speed to outrun the secondary. He also had great hands, becoming quite a receiving threat, and was capable of going all the way when called upon to return kickoffs.
In the 2014 homecoming win over Vanderbilt, Gurley also showed his versatility, by throwing a 50-yard pass.
Georgia didn’t win any championships during his three seasons as a Dawg (though they came close), but Gurley had quite a few spectacular days for UGA, as the Falcons noted when they recently celebrated their signing of him by posting an online collection of his 12 greatest plays for UGA.
Still, it’s pretty easy to select his best overall game as a Bulldog: the 2014 season-opening win over Clemson.
On a hot, humid night in Athens, Gurley gained 293 all-purpose yards, running for 198 yards on 15 carries, and scoring four TDs, including a kickoff return of 100-plus yards that was a thing of beauty, and a 51-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
It’s funny to recall that when Gurley, ranked as a 4-star prospect, first showed up in Athens in 2012 as a freshman, he wasn’t even the most highly anticipated back — that was Keith Marshall. Gurley and fellow North Carolinian Marshall, who had decided during recruiting they wanted to attend school together, were celebrated nationally as a two-headed yardage machine known as “Gurshall,” a play on “Herschel,” sparked by their individual jersey numbers, 3 and 4, providing a reminder of Walker’s officially retired No. 34.
Actually, neither Gurley nor Marshall liked the “Gurshall” moniker, but they put up with for the first season. It finally fell out of use during their sophomore year after they spoke out against it (and Gurley established himself as a solo star on a whole other level).
This week, I enjoyed reliving Gurley’s Bulldog exploits as I scrolled through my Blawgs from his time with the Dawgs. “Todd Gurley has a Dawgs debut worth woofing about,” said the headline over my account of the 2012 season opener against Buffalo, which saw the freshman back run for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 55-yard scoring dash, plus a 100-yard kickoff return, for a total of three touchdowns in his first game for UGA. That made him the first Bulldogs freshman to run for 100 yards in his debut since Danny Ware in 2004.
What followed was an almost-magical season that saw the Dawgs win the SEC East and come within 5 yards of playing for the national championship. Along the way, we saw Gurley turn in one superb performance after another, sometimes breaking as many as four tackles on a single run, as he surpassed 100 yards rushing in nine games that season.
Gurley shone even in the heartbreaking SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama, running for a very tough 122 yards and 2 touchdowns against a stellar Tide defense.
Bulldogs fans embraced the dreadlocked star, with female students dubbing themselves “Gurley Gurls.” (A memorable occasion for my daughter during her time at UGA was sharing a meal with Gurley, as they enjoyed fried chicken at the Snelling dining hall.)
Despite rarely being completely healthy during his sophomore season, Gurley soon routinely was being referred to as the nation’s best running back, starting with the nationally televised game at Clemson in which he racked up 154 yards on 12 carries (including a 75-yard touchdown run) despite being dinged up. Although Georgia lost to the Tigers, Gurley obviously was the best player on the field that Saturday night.
Then came two giant home wins over highly ranked South Carolina and LSU. Gurley rambled for 130 mostly tough yards on 30 carries against the Gamecocks, and, although he left the LSU game in the second quarter with a high ankle sprain, he already had 73 yards on eight carries for an average of 9.1 yards per run at that point.
He missed three games with that injury and, when he returned against Florida, Gurley obviously was out of condition after the layoff. A 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter left him wiped out physically, but he returned to the fray in the second half, and, though he obviously was running on fumes, still managed to gut out a third-down conversion by the tip of the football on that final Georgia drive, thanks to his second effort. Gurley wound up the day with 100 yards on 17 carries and three receptions for another 87 yards that made him the Dogs’ leading receiver of the day in yardage.
Catching passes was a Gurley talent that grew more important as his time at UGA progressed. In the 2013 Auburn game, he caught 10 passes for 77 yards, the most receptions that day by any Bulldog.
Gurley’s sophomore season also saw him becoming known for another trademark, his Superman-like leaps toward the end zone, breaking the plane of the goal line with the ball in one hand.
Although he obviously wasn’t at 100 percent after returning from the injury, he still was a formidable weapon. That particularly was evident in a hard-fought, come-from-behind win over Georgia Tech.
In what might be my all-time favorite Gurley game, the Dawgs broke the Jackets’ hearts by winning 41-34 in double-overtime, with Gurley scoring two of his three touchdowns for the day in extra time. Georgia’s plan in OT was simple, as Mark Richt explained after the game: “We just kind of handed the ball to Big Boy,” meaning Gurley.
It was one of the most imposing performances I’ve seen by a Georgia tailback.
After Gurley’s remarkable performance in the 2014 season opener against Clemson, expectations were sky-high. However, something I wrote in the Blawg at the time proved to be prophetic: “Todd Gurley is one of those special players we need to savor while we have the tremendous pleasure of watching him.”
Unfortunately, by early October that year, Gurley was on suspension by the NCAA. Chubb proved an able substitute, but Georgia fans were elated when Gurley’s No. 3 jersey was back out on the field as Auburn visited Sanford Stadium.
Gurley looked a little bit rusty at times in that game, but he still racked up 138 yards on 29 carries before tearing up his knee late in the fourth quarter. He also had another 100-yard kickoff return, though it was negated by a Georgia penalty.
I wrote at the time: “If that’s the last we see of Todd Gurley in a Georgia uniform, we can at least take solace in all the enjoyment we had watching one of college football’s all-time greats become a star while playing Between the Hedges.”
I also noted: “Just imagine what he could have done if he’d played every game of the past three seasons.”
So, yeah, I hope Gurley is able to regain his early NFL form and provide more stellar moments as a Falcon. But, even if he doesn’t, he’s still a Dawg for the Ages.
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