AJC Rewind: Gurley shifts star power back to running back

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Editor's note: This story examining the life of Todd Gurley and his thoughts on the 2014 season originally appeared in August. Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University of Georgia Thursday.

As a class, the running back has suffered a steep devaluation worthy of some of the world’s most colorful and obscure currencies. The position almost seems a relic from another time, when we still bought stamps, shopped at Radio Shack and followed the prizefights.

In the past two NFL drafts, not a single runner was deemed worthy of a first-round pick. Sad days for the player who so proudly carried the game before the rule book went all pass happy.

As Georgia’s Todd Gurley stands on the platform of what may well be his final college season, looking down the tracks at his career to come, he does not seem too concerned about his place in the football food chain.

What is a thoroughly modern-day running back to do, but to run as best he can?

“You got to make somebody want you,” Gurley said when asked about his chosen position’s diminishing draft status.

“It’s all about your performance on the field. That’s what I’m trying to do — I want to make somebody take me the first pick, or second pick. That’s why I’m going to go out there and just give it my all and play hard.”

For “just” a running back in his junior season in Athens, Gurley has stoked a good amount of anticipation for 2014. People seem to think he is going to generate the kind of buzz that his kind used to, bringing back a little of that old star power to a position taken for granted.

For what it’s worth, in its recent preseason Heisman odds, online sportsbook Bovada recently listed Gurley as the only non-quarterback among its top five. Quarterbacks have won 12 of the past 13 Heisman Trophies.

An ESPN ranking of the top players in the country placed Gurley third, behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

He is the kind of back capable not only of bursting into that exclusive club of offensive divas, but also of inspiring his proper coach to break out the most fractured kind of English.

“I think Todd is a great player. When he’s healthy, he’s a force, a man to be reckoned with, there ain’t no doubt about that,” Mark Richt noted.

Chris Conley earns his scholarship catching passes and will be happy for all those that Aaron Murray’s replacement, Hutson Mason, bestows upon him. Still, presented a runner of Gurley’s pedigree, he is forced to admit, “People ask me would you rather throw the ball or have Todd run it? If he’s getting first downs and touchdowns — run it.”

Getting a rise from Gurley on the very premature Heisman mentions is no easy task. The private Gurley, we are often told, is a chatterbox, a gregarious character who is playful with teammates and vocally combative with opponents.

Conley cast Gurley in a non-speaking cameo in a Star Wars-comes-to-campus short film he recently did — the bad guys’ fire bouncing off Gurley before he flies away like a comic-book hero. The non-speaking aspect was the hardest part to grasp, Conley insisted.

“He’s a really expressive person,” Conley said. “The thing is when acting with Todd you have to tell him to pull back a little bit because he is trying to do too much. He can go over the top.

“When Todd came in people knew who he was and where he was from, but beyond that he was a very quiet guy. Didn’t talk a lot. He doesn’t stop talking now. You have to make Todd go away. It’s hard for (media) to believe because he doesn’t talk (to them) a lot.”

So, when Gurley is confronted with a tape recorder and questions about his Heisman, we are left with this:

“I feel like people get too caught in the hype about that.”


“It’s basically a team award, man, not a one-man award.”

The two Gurleys present themselves again when the subject turns to the number of SEC defenders who seem inordinately anxious to meet him head-on. Given the physics of Gurley’s speed and size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds), that is not a collision you’d wish upon your least favorite in-law. Yet during July’s SEC media conclave, defenders from both South Carolina and Missouri took pains to single out Gurley as someone they’d dearly love to tackle.

Scuttling over to get his reaction, the media was left without a single sensational response.

“It really doesn’t get to me. It’s like respect. No hard feelings, just them being competitive. It’s just the game of football,” Gurley said.

Yet, a voice from back home in Tarboro, N.C., suggests that the private Gurley will file away all slights, real or perceived, and put them to good use. Beware all you linemen who seek to connect with the Bulldogs back — sometimes you get what you ask for.

“He takes things personally,” said Jeff Craddock, Gurley’s high school coach. “He’ll look for those guys talking about him, and he’ll find them. And I know who I got my money on — I’m taking my guy.”

Around the greater Tarboro area, there’s little doubt that if Gurley opts out for the NFL after his junior season he will do something memorable with his final days at Georgia.

For Heisman voters requiring an interesting personal story to flesh out the statistical one, Gurley’s begins in a small town, population of just more than 11,000, west of Raleigh and a seven-hour drive from Athens.

“Typical story,” Gurley said. “Young kid. Single mother (his father was back in Baltimore for much of his youth), growing up with my siblings, coming from the bottom and now I’m at the University of Georgia. There’s nothing else to be said.”

He lets go of details grudgingly. Yes, he has one brother in prison, who he regularly acknowledges on Twitter. The offense, Gurley has not gone into, although he said he hopes for brother Princeton to soon be released.

He makes little of the circumstances of his childhood other than to celebrate where he is today.

“I talk to my mom and brother, people I grew up with every day about how far we made it,” he said. “I’m just happy to be still living now.

“I’m so proud I was able to stay focused, stay out of trouble. I got a lot of my friends who didn’t go to college, others who went and messed up. I’m glad I was able to stay focused. They’re still my friends, but I knew when to separate myself.

“That ain’t tough, man. I know what I want for my life.”

A youngster can get in trouble pretty much anywhere, be it Tarboro or the boroughs of New York. Some of those around the early Gurley recognized that this kid had a deep well of potential. And he would do nothing to poison it.

When Leshaun Jenkins, then Tarboro High’s head basketball coach, walked into a meeting of eighth graders interested in feeding into his program, “(Gurley) was the first kid I laid eyes on,” he said, “and when I laid eyes on him there was something about that moment that said, ‘You know what, this kid is special.’”

“I told him that at the meeting. I told him I wouldn’t be surprised to see your name on the back of a major college jersey one day. I didn’t know if it would be a football jersey or basketball jersey. I just knew I saw something in him that was special.”

Jenkins became one of Gurley’s chief guides through the labyrinths of adolescence, shuttling him to practices, staying on him about his schoolwork, chipping in the occasional meal and feeding his dreams, too. That didn’t stop even after Gurley began a football-only regimen his junior year at Tarboro.

You can’t say Gurley didn’t have his boosters at home. An Ohio native, Craddock, his football coach, emailed then Ohio State coach Jim Tressel about a runner who could surely help his program. The Buckeyes wrote back that they weren’t interested. Bulldogs fans wishing to thank Tressel today should address letters to the president’s office at Youngstown State.

When Georgia signed Keith Marshall from nearby Raleigh in 2011, the Dogs were said to have snagged the nation's top prospect. But when they signed Gurley, Craddock messaged Richt: "Now, you've got the best running back in the country."

The speed and the strength played in concert with an attitude that really separated Gurley. “When he sets his mind to accomplish something, it’s a done deal,” Jenkins said. “He’s going to do it, whether you think he’s going to do it or not. You can either stand in his way and get bowled over or you can say, ‘OK, here you go, dude.’ He is relentless.”

Such an attitude does not work well with injuries. So, yes, everyone — Gurley atop the list — was frustrated by the ankle problem that removed him from three and a half games last season and slowed him up afterward. Carries were down his sophomore season (57 fewer than as a freshman); yardage was down (396 fewer); touchdowns dipped (seven less). In a 2014 without the comfort of Murray at quarterback, Georgia figures to require much more of Gurley, not less.

“I’m just going to go out there and play like I play. I’m not going to really worry about getting hurt. Injuries are going to happen, but I’m not going to hold back from anything,” Gurley said.

All Gurley’s asking for is a little daylight and a few good ligaments upon which to stand, and he all but promises you will celebrate the running back once more.