Freshmen backs Gurley, Marshall off to electrifying start at Georgia
Last weekend in Tarboro, N.C. -- a town located about 430 miles away from Athens, Ga. -- Jeff Craddock stood before about 400 attendees at Sunset Church of God's "Tailgate Sunday" event and asked: "How many of you are watching Georgia football on Saturdays?"
"I'd say about 70 or 80 percent raised their hand," said Craddock, Tarboro High's football coach. "I'm a huge Ohio State fan, but even I've got a Georgia pullover now."
Tarboro is the hometown of Todd Gurley, who along with fellow North Carolina native Keith Marshall, helps comprise the No. 5 Bulldogs' dazzling freshman tailback tandem. In last week's 51-44 win over Tennessee, Gurley and Marshall set a school record for two freshmen by rushing for a combined 294 yards and five touchdowns. (In 1985, Keith Henderson and Tim Worley combined for 249 yards in an upset of No. 1 Florida.) The pair is averaging a staggering 192.8 yards per game and 8.0 yards per carry.
On Saturday, they'll face their toughest foe to date when Georgia (5-0) visits No. 6 South Carolina (5-0). But it'll just mark the next step in their precocious journey. A year ago, Gurley and Marshall -- friends from their time at summer track competitions in high school -- sat together in the stands on a recruiting visit when the Gamecocks beat the Dawgs, 45-42, in Athens.
"We came to the same school," said Gurley, "and right now we're loving it."
And Georgia fans love them back. It's hard to believe that just a few months ago, running back was one of the Dawgs' biggest concerns. Isaiah Crowell, last year's leading rusher (850 yards) and SEC Freshman of the Year, was dismissed after being arrested on weapons charges in June.
But even with Crowell, Georgia had just the seventh-ranked rushing offense in the SEC last season. Now, they're No. 1 in that category, averaging 248.8 yards per game.
"I felt we were gonna be OK [after Crowell's dismissal]," said Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon. "I knew I was going to play both of those guys already."
McClendon knew better than anyone what the Bulldogs were getting. He was the primary recruiter for both Gurley and Marshall, having first watched tape of the latter during the back's sophomore season at Millbrook High in Raleigh, N.C. Recruitniks knew well that Georgia was getting a potential breakout star; Scout.com rated the 5-foot-11, 216-pound Marshall a five-star prospect and the No. 1 running back in the class of 2012.
Gurley, on the other hand, managed to fly under the radar. Perhaps because he didn't start until his junior year at Tarboro, or perhaps because the Vikings play in Class 2A, the second-lowest athletic division in North Carolina, the 6-1, 218-pound runner was considered a three- or four-star prospect until late in the recruiting cycle.
"When [recruiting analysts] would come through here, I'd say, 'If this kid's a four-star athlete, I want to see a five-star because I don't understand it,'" said Craddock. "I really believed wherever he went was going to have an instant impact because that's how good he is."
Indeed, in his college debut Sept. 1 against Buffalo, Gurley -- the second tailback to enter the game after sophomore Ken Malcome -- rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries and broke a kickoff return for 100 yards. He followed that up with three 100-yard performances in his next four games, including his 24-carry, 130-yard, three-touchdown effort in last week's win over the Vols.
Gurley's raw speed is one thing. He won the 110-meter high hurdles in 13.88 seconds at the 2011 USA Youth Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Myrtle Beach, S.C., earning a spot to compete for Team USA in Lille, France. But his ability to run inside and break tackles has truly impressed opposing coaches.
"He reminds me a lot of [former Alabama star] Trent Richardson as far as his lower body strength and he takes the ball north and south," Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said before last week's game.
"You're talking about a -pound guy who gets downhill and is as big and as impressive a freshman running back as I've seen," said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin after Gurley gashed the Commodores for 130 yards and two scores.
Marshall may be every bit as fast as Gurley -- he won the 100 meters at the same 2011 USA Youth event, finishing in 10.64 seconds -- but he came on slower this season, relatively speaking. Marshall tallied just 78 rushing yards in his first two games before carrying 10 times for 104 yards against Florida Atlantic Sept. 15 and then exploding for 72- and 75-yard touchdown runs against the Vols last week.
"Everyone knows his speed," said Clarence Inscore, Marshall's coach at Millbrook, "but he's pretty freaking powerful, too."
"These guys physically, they're very strong kids," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "They're both vey bright guys, very teachable, very coachable. They've had a lot of success but they've kept it all in check pretty good, and the fact they're sharing the load is good too, rather than one guy being the special freshman."
Perhaps inevitably, the pair is drawing comparisons in Athens to one particularly special freshman, Herschel Walker, the former Heisman winner who ran for a school freshman-record 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1980. To that end, Dawgs fans have already coined a fitting nickname for the duo: "Gurshall."
"I think it's funny," Marshall said of the name. "It's an honor for me and Todd to even be put in the same sentence as him."
The two friends, who grew up 75 miles apart and didn't meet until two summers ago, insist the opportunity to play together was not the primary reason they came to Georgia. But the pair kept in close touch throughout their respective recruitments ("Where I'm from no one was really being recruited," said Marshall), as they shared several of the same suitors. (Clemson was a finalist for both.) Marshall committed first, on Dec. 6, and immediately set out to entice Gurley and another track friend, Ronald Darby, a safety who eventually wound up at Florida State.
Torn between Georgia and Clemson, Gurley ultimately chose the Bulldogs five weeks later. The pair envisioned emulating recent SEC rushing tandems like Alabama's Richardson and Mark Ingram.
"The idea of two highly recruited athletes going to the same school together and playing the same position, a lot of people would say, man, that's kind of crazy, you're going to give up a lot of your carries," said Inscore. "They were so mature in having that forethought to think, hey, it's going to take two guys to get it done in the SEC."
There was also another element: The pair knew they'd be stepping into a potentially high-powered offense.
A contributing factor to the duo's early success is Georgia's offensive balance, highlighted by the presence of future NFL quarterback Aaron Murray. Gurley credits the third-year starter and third-ranked passer in the nation for easing the freshmen's learning curve. And when CBS' Tracy Wolfson interviewed Gurley after the Tennessee game, some of the first words out of his mouth were compliments for his offensive line.
"It's a lot of things that go into these guys getting big plays, starting with the play call to Aaron Murray putting us in the right place," said McClendon. "And when these guys break in to the secondary, the receivers are doing a great job blocking down the field. [Gurley and Marshall] are getting the credit, but it's a whole offensive team effort."
On Saturday, the duo that's already combined for 13 rushes of 20 yards or more will run into a South Carolina defense that's allowed just two carries that long through five games. Two years ago, Steve Spurrier's own freshman phenom, Marcus Lattimore, ran for 182 yards in a 17-6 win over the Dawgs, setting off the Gamecocks' run to their first SEC East title. Last year, with Gurley and Marshall in attendance, South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram scored twice in a frenetic 45-42 victory, though Georgia went on to win the East.
This year, the teams meet for the first time as top 10 opponents, a game which should go a long way toward determining the 2012 SEC East hierarchy. It also figures to draw a lot of television viewers -- particularly in the state of North Carolina.