Georgia’s freshman running backs have brought much-needed stability to a position in flux the past couple of seasons.
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have also provided another added boost: getting chunks of yards with big gains.
“You can tell they’re confident in the scheme,” said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, whose team will try to stop Gurley and Marshall Saturday night in Sanford Stadium. “They’re both guys that can make you miss and go 80, but they have size. They’re not small backs.”
In only three games, Gurley and Marshall already have totaled four runs of 25 yards or more, one away from matching the number that Georgia had all of last season with Isaiah Crowell as its leading rusher. In 2010 with Washaun Ealey and Caleb King as the top ground gainers, Georgia had eight runs of 25 or more yards.
It’s come easier than Gurley envisioned.
“Coming from high school to the next level, you kind of expect to not be able to do all that stuff,” said Gurley, who has runs of 55, 44 and 38 yards. “Most runs after I get hit a couple of times and if I’m still up, I’m still shocked but I just keep moving.”
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Gurley, a power runner with speed who can maneuver inside, is tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing with 276 yards and four touchdowns and leads with a 9.9-yards-per-carry average. The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Marshall, who uses his speed to get to the corner, is 15th in the league with 182 yards and one touchdown, with a long run of 28.
“Being consistent in the small stuff is one thing that’s helped them get in position to make those big runs,” running backs coach Bryan McClendon said. “Their attention to detail is uncanny for them being as young as they are.”
McClendon said that means making sure their eyes are making the right reads, that their steps are the way he wants it.
“We had a ton of 10-, 15-yard runs last year, but never broke,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who got his biggest runs last season from cornerbacks Brandon Boykin (80 yards) and Branden Smith (56 yards).
“We’re breaking runs,” Bobo said. “It’s a credit to the offensive line. They’re getting a hat on a hat and those guys are getting in the secondary. …I really like the effort of the whole team trying to block for these guys. You want to recruit guys that can take it to the house, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Gurley has done that with his touchdown runs of 55 and 38 yards
“That’s definitely something that we want to keep going,” Marshall said. “A big play gets everybody excited and gets everybody into the game. The last game, really, it was the offensive line. They sprung us.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt pointed to the Bulldogs line creating open spaces to travel through.
“Some of that is just flat-out good blocking,” Richt said. “You’ve still got to find it and have a little patience sometimes and set up a block and then hit it. It’s not just that anybody could run through those holes, but we’ve had some good blocking.”
Marshall and Gurley were both top tailback prospects out of North Carolina, with Marshall rated higher by most recruiting services. Rivals.com had both in their top 50, with Gurley six spots ahead at No. 42.
“Those guys have grown up extremely fast in three games,” receiver Tavarres King said. “Todd just came out hot like a manchild. Both of those guys are extremely talented.”
They looked the part in Georgia’s 56-20 win against Florida Atlantic last week when they became the first pair of Bulldogs freshmen to rush for 100 yards each since Thomas Brown and Danny Ware in 2004
“It helps that they’ve got a quarterback that if you load the box up, he’s going to hurt you on the perimeter and playmakers at wideout,” Franklin said.
The big runs have helped the rushing totals for the freshmen.
Richt is looking for even more.
“We’ve had more opportunities to make safeties miss, it seems like, then maybe we had all last year together,” Richt said. “How many times have they made the safety miss and taken it to the house? That’s kind of the next stage of development for those guys that I’d like to see them improve on.”