Georgia hasn‚Äôt been able to ride Todd Gurley as much as it hoped it could this season, but his absence certainly made the Bulldogs‚Äô collective heart grow fonder for what the star tailback can do.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a load,‚Äù Georgia coach Mark Richt said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a very special back.‚Äù
Georgia Tech would certainly agree. Georgia gave the ball to Gurley every play after regulation in their double overtime win in Atlanta on Nov. 30, rushing for 50 yards and two touchdowns on a day he finished with 122 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
‚ÄúHe put the team on his back, really, and carried us to victory,‚Äù receiver Michael Bennett said.
Now, Nebraska will try to slow down Gurley on New Year‚Äôs Day in the Gator Bowl.
Gurley hasn‚Äôt spent much time wondering about what could have been through the injuries in his sophomore season. No, he‚Äôs just happy that he‚Äôs finishing it on the field, unlike quarterback Aaron Murray, tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, all out with torn ACLs.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt dwell on it too much, it is what it is,‚Äù Gurley said. ‚ÄúI missed games. I could have been out for the whole year, so I‚Äôm just lucky to be able to come back and still play.‚Äù
Mike Bobo, Georgia‚Äôs offensive coordinator, has had a special back before back in 2007 and 2008 when Knowshon Moreno rushed for 1,334 and 1,400 yards.
Moreno was the No. 12 overall pick in the 2009 draft by Denver and this season he became the first Broncos players to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 receiving yards, but Bobo said Gurley‚Äôs ability to change a game and influence play-calling is ‚Äúprobably a little bit more with this team.‚Äù
Georgia‚Äôs offense in 2008 included No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford at quarterback, No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green and second-round pick Mohamed Massaquoi at receiver.
‚ÄúWe had some explosive players around him where he wasn‚Äôt the most explosive player on the field,‚Äù Bobo said. ‚ÄúTodd has pretty much been the most explosive player for us offensively, the guy that can change a game. We block for 10 and he can take it 50 or we throw that little pass and he can make the safety miss and go to the house. That‚Äôs the difference with him, those screen passes he scores on.‚Äù
Gurley needs just 97 yards to become the first Georgia player since Moreno to put up back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons. The only other played to do that was Herschel Walker, who had three straight from 1980-82.
Three of Georgia‚Äôs losses came when Gurley was out or sidelined for at least a chunk of the game.
He strained a quadriceps muscle on a 75-yard touchdown run in the opener against Clemson and had only 12 carries in the game and then missed the Missouri and Vanderbilt games (and the Tennessee win) after spraining an ankle against LSU.
Gurley missed parts of the win over Florida and still had 187 total yards. He wasn‚Äôt at full strength in the second half of the season for other games after returning but still totaled a combined 314 yards rushing and receiving against Auburn and Georgia Tech.
‚ÄúI feel like this year sort of got taken from him because of the injuries,‚Äù outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. ‚ÄúNext season is just his year to have a complete season and just dominate like every time he‚Äôs been out there.‚Äù
That time missed probably cost Gurley a spot on the coaches‚Äô All-SEC team, but he still made second-team by The Associated Press.
‚ÄúI missed like five games,‚Äù said Gurley, who has 10 rushing touchdowns and five receiving. ‚ÄúWhy would I be up there?‚Äù
After a two-week break following the regular season, Gurley looked fresher during bowl practices on campus than he had since the start of preseason practices.
‚ÄúHe has a little more pep in his step,‚Äù Bobo said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs excited about the game, finishing this season right and starting off the new season. We‚Äôve had a couple of conversations about that. I expect him to play well. He wasn‚Äôt healthy in last year‚Äôs game (when he rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries).‚Äù
Asked if Gurley had been close to 100 percent at any time this season, running backs coach Bryan McClendon wasn‚Äôt certain. Gurley said he wasn‚Äôt sure, but hoped to be for the bowl game.
‚ÄúTo be honest with you, sometimes I‚Äôm not sure he‚Äôs being completely honest on how bad he is actually hurting,‚Äù McClendon said. ‚ÄúI do know he‚Äôs not 100 percent. That‚Äôs something that we talked about before the year that it was going to be something just by the position and the style he plays. He probably won‚Äôt be 100 percent until after the year.‚Äù
Georgia would figure to need Gurley for the long haul next season.
Aaron Murray and his 52 career starts will be gone. Hutson Mason is poised to start his third college game in the 2014 opener against Clemson.
How will that change things for Gurley? He said that‚Äôs for others to decide.
Gurley probably only has one more season left at Georgia.
He‚Äôs the No. 4 rated NFL prospect among those not eligible for the 2014 draft by ESPN‚Äôs Todd McShay.
McClendon‚Äôs challenge to Gurley will be to be ‚Äúbetter than he was this year.‚Äù
If he is, he certainly will get consideration for being in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He‚Äôs already being listed among the contenders.
‚ÄúI think he‚Äôs one of the best backs in America,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think there‚Äôs any doubt about that. I think most people that have seen him play would say that as well.‚Äù
Gurley couldn‚Äôt help notice this year‚Äôs top Heisman vote getter at running back, Boston College‚Äôs Andre Williams.
‚ÄúThat dude‚Äôs huge, man,‚Äù said the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Gurley said. ‚ÄúI guess he‚Äôs like the same size as me, but he‚Äôs like an old-school running back. No glove, elbow pads, but he‚Äôs a beast.‚Äù
That‚Äôs the same word Mason used to describe Gurley, who has averaged 99.5 yards rushing a game in his career, good for fifth nationally among active players.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs not a lot of people that can stop him,‚Äù Mason said.
And the best still could be to come for the Tarboro, N.C., product in 2014 after he rushed for 1,385 yards as a freshman and 903 so far this year. He about doubled his catches this year to 30 for 344 yards.
‚ÄúThe sky‚Äôs the limit for that guy,‚Äù offensive guard Chris Burnette said. ‚ÄúHim having another year to train and get prepared, he‚Äôll probably make this year and last year look like nothing.‚Äù
Junior receiver Chris Conley plans to make sure Gurley stays on top of things this offseason.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not going to be letting up on him at all,‚Äù Conley said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs going to be coming in here with me every day. Then I expect him to ball out. Kid‚Äôs an extreme talent.‚Äù