It was only the second preseason practice for Georgia back in August.
The players weren’t yet in full pads, still in shorts and helmets.
But someone who had seen freshmen running backs make an immediate impact could tell what Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall could bring to the Bulldogs as he chatted with Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“They caught my eye pretty quick,” said Houston Nutt, the Arkansas coach in 2005 when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones burst onto the scene. “I was talking to Mark when I noticed them in the drills. They took off, both of them, when they did a team period. Todd took off on a 30-yard run and Keith Marshall, he took off on a long run. They weren’t tackling, but they made a guy miss and they’d go off running.”
Three and a half months later, Gurley and Marshall have become the most productive freshman rushing duo in the Southeastern Conference since McFadden and Jones combined to rush for 1,739 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2005. Gurley and Marshall so far have rushed for 1,598 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“It’s great when you have a duo like that,” Georgia offensive lineman Kenarious Gates said. “It makes our job easier. You just give them a crease, a small little hole and they’ll make a big play. It feels good when you see the running back pass by you on the line and you’re like, ‘Yes,’ you know you got your block.”
Gurley and Marshall have collectively been compared to Herschel Walker with the nickname “Gurshall.” The more apt comparison may be to SEC freshman duos who have preceded them.
Gurley and Marshall will surpass the rushing totals put up by McFadden and Jones if they hit their combined average of 159.8 yards per game Saturday against Georgia Southern.
“It’s really impressive,” said Nutt, who was in Athens in the preseason to broadcast a Sirius/XM radio show and who works now for CSS and CBS Sports Network. “From my 19 years of being a head coach and even when we had Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State when I was an assistant under Pat Jones, no one’s had those kind of numbers.”
Gurley has 973 rushing yards, putting him 27 away from hitting the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Marshall has rushed for 625 yards and six touchdowns.
“Our two freshmen backs have really been fantastic,” Richt said. “To have so many doubts about our running game going into the season and to have these guys play the way they’ve been playing has been great.”
Those doubts surfaced after Isaiah Crowell’s departure after rushing for 850 yards as a freshman.
Gurley would become the seventh SEC freshman to rush for 1,000 yards since the 2002 season, joining South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Auburn’s Michael Dyer in 2010, Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno (as a redshirt freshman) in 2007, McFadden in 2005 and LSU’s Justin Vincent in 2003.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, with 1,014 rushing yards this season, is the other in that group.
Marshall and Gurley each have four runs of 40 or more yards, tied for the most in the SEC. Marshall is tied for second nationally with four runs of 50 or more yards, scoring touchdowns on runs of 52, 75, 72 and 62 yards. Gurley has touchdown runs of 55, 51 and 38.
“It’s unbelievable,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Sometimes I feel like it’s the Oregon offense the way those guys are able to break through and get 30, 40, 50, 60, 70-yard touchdown runs.”
“They kind of just came in droves this year,” Richt said.
They stay fresh because they often share the load. Gurley had 11 carries Saturday against Auburn and Marshall eight.
“In this league, you’re not going to last too long taking 30 carries every game,” Gurley said. “You’re going to need somebody to be there with you. You need to have other backs that can come in the rotation.”
Gurley and Marshall wanted to be together.
“A lot of times backs when they come out of high school, they want to go the opposite, they keep asking, ‘How many backs do you have? Who’s all coming?’” Nutt said. “What I loved about McFadden and Felix is they wanted to play with each other. They wanted that camaraderie.”
Gurley and Marshall, both from North Carolina, became friends after running in track meets against each other in high school.
“That was probably the only person I knew or had a good relationship with before I came here,” said Marshall, who took recruiting visits with Gurley. “We were hoping to get to go to college together. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out.”
Nutt said he thinks if Gurley and Marshall stay healthy they can have the type of careers that McFadden and Jones had.
McFadden left for the NFL after his junior year. He’s the SEC’s second all-time rusher with 4,590 yards behind Walker’s 5,259.
Auburn tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams were drafted with the No. 2 and No. 5 overall picks, respectively, in the 2005 NFL draft. They combined for 944 yards as freshmen but ranked third and eighth in the SEC in rushing in 2004 as seniors when Williams rushed for 1,165 yards and Brown for 913.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator from 2002-04 when Brown and Williams were there, said Gurley and Marshall are “very reminiscent” of Brown and Williams as freshmen.
“I think they’re tremendous football players,” Chizik said. “I think it’s pretty obvious by their production this year that they’ve got a chance to have great careers there at Georgia. I think Mark does a good job of using them in the right way. … They’re definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with as the years go on.”