Mark Richt ecstatic about Todd Gurley's return

Georgia running back Todd Gurley eludes the tackle of Clemson's  Adrien Dunn en route to a 100-yard kickoff return against Clemson on Saturday, August 30, 2014 in Athens.  BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC file 



Georgia running back Todd Gurley eludes the tackle of Clemson's Adrien Dunn en route to a 100-yard kickoff return against Clemson on Saturday, August 30, 2014 in Athens. BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC file .

“If I’m a Falcons fan, I’m jumping for joy!”

That was the reaction of former Georgia coach Mark Richt to Friday morning's news that the Falcons will sign running back Todd Gurley to a one-year contract. A former No. 10 draft pick who is entering his sixth NFL season, Gurley was released by the Rams on Thursday.

A day after releasing running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons picked up Gurley with a deal reportedly worth $5 million.

Richt and then running backs coach Bryan McClendon get credit for discovering Gurley as 4-star prospect out of Tarboro, N.C., and convincing him to come to UGA over Clemson in the recruiting class of 2012.

Though 5-star prospect Keith Marshall, of Raleigh was considered the star of that class, it was quickly established in preseason camp that Gurley was even better. That notion was validated in his first game as a Georgia player. After scoring the Bulldogs’ first touchdown of the season on their first possession on a 10-yard run, Gurley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Buffalo.

“We thought they were both elite,” Richt said of Marshall and Gurley. “Keith had made his reputation early in high school. Todd gradually got everyone’s attention and it climaxed his senior year.”

Gurley was no longer a secret by the time he graduated from Tarboro High. He was named the Associated Press Player of the Year for North Carolina after rushing for 2,600 yards and 38 touchdowns his senior season. He ran for 242 yards and scored four touchdowns in the 2011 state championship game.

At Georgia, that Buffalo game was the first of nine in which Gurley rushed for more than 100 yards his freshman season. By the time he finished his career, he ranked second in school history in career touchdowns (44), all-purpose yards (4,322) and rushing yards (3,285). He also held the UGA record for average yards per carry in his career (6.44), edging out Charley Trippi (6.42).

But while productive, Gurley's career at UGA was not all smooth-sailing. In 2014 he was suspended four games by the NCAA for accepting cash from sports memorabilia dealers in exchange for autographing merchandise. He suffered a torn ACL in his knee in his first game back against Auburn, then turned pro at the end of that season.

Interestingly, the Falcons had a chance to select Gurley in the 2015 NFL draft. But they chose defensive end Vic Beasley of Clemson with the eighth overall pick. The Rams picked Gurley two selections later.

Gurley recovered quickly from the knee injury. He earned offensive rookie of the year in his first season with the Rams when he rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. In five seasons, he has gained 7,770 total yards, including 5,665 rushing, and scored 72 touchdowns.

Gurley has battled knee injuries the last two seasons but has missed only four games as a result.

In an interview with last week, Gurley counts himself fortunate on the injury front.

“The average (NFL) career is 3½ years and I’m going on Year 6,” he told Domonique Foxworth. “So, it’s like, I’m very appreciative, very grateful to be in the position I’m in and to be doing what I’m doing. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in probably 90 percent of my games … which is pretty good for a running back who plays a lot of downs.”

How productive Gurley can be for the Falcons remains to be seen. But his mere presence on the roster is expected to bolster attendance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Georgia fans, who have staked the Bulldogs to 79 consecutive sellouts in 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium, reacted passionately to Gurley’s acquisition on social media on Friday.

The question now is whether they will show their support through attendance.