What was likely Todd Gurley’s last game as a Georgia Bulldog began with a flashback not just to the season-opening win against Clemson this season, but to his celebrated freshman debut at the beginning of the 2012 season: with No. 3 thrilling a Sanford Stadium crowd yet again by returning a kickoff all the way from one end zone to the other.
While a penalty on the electrifying return Saturday night meant this one didn’t count, it was such a Gurleyesque way for the big tailback to return from a four-game suspension for violating NCAA rules — taking it to the house in a nationally televised big game. My daughter said Saturday night’s return by Gurley ignited the loudest reaction she’s heard in the UGA student section since last year’s ear-pounding LSU game.
If Gurley’s career at UGA is indeed over, as most figure since he already was expected to enter the NFL draft after his junior season, it stands not only as a hallmark of what a remarkable player can achieve, but leaves Georgia fans with a haunting sense of what could have been even greater.
Gurley is now the second-leading rusher in UGA history, behind only Herschel Walker, having surpassed the great Garrison Hearst with his 138-yard night against Auburn before getting hurt. He also ranks behind only Herschel in number of touchdowns.
Just imagine what he could have done if he’d played every game of the past three seasons. Instead, Gurley missed half of this season thanks to his suspension for selling autographs and now an ACL tear, was out three games with injury last season, and played with various nagging ailments the latter part of his sensational freshman season.
Ah, that freshman season. As I wrote back on Sept. 1, 2012, “Gurley’s debut as a Georgia Bulldog was definitely a performance to savor, with the true freshman showing those August scrimmage performances were no fluke: 100 yards on eight carries plus a 100-yard kickoff return for a total of three touchdowns. He’s the first UGA freshman to run for 100 yards in his debut game since Danny Ware in 2004.”
What followed was an almost-magical season that saw the Dawgs win the SEC East again and come within 5 yards of playing for the national championship. Along the way, we saw Gurley turn in one superb performance after another, sometimes breaking as many as four tackles on a single run as he surpassed 100 yards rushing nine times that season.
Back then, Gurley and fellow North Carolinian Keith Marshall, who had decided during recruiting they wanted to attend school together, were celebrated nationally as a two-headed yardage machine known as “Gurshall,” a play on Herschel sparked by their individual jersey numbers, 3 and 4, providing a reminder of Walker’s officially retired No. 34.
Actually, neither Gurley nor Marshall liked the “Gurshall” moniker, but they put up with for the first season. It finally fell out of use during their sophomore year after they spoke out against it (and Gurley established himself as a solo star on a whole other level).
Despite rarely being completely healthy during his sophomore season, Gurley soon was routinely being referred to as the nation’s best running back, starting with that nationally televised game at Clemson in which he racked up 154 yards on 12 carries (including a 75-yard touchdown run) despite being dinged up. Although Georgia lost to the Tigers, Gurley was obviously the best player on the field that Saturday night.
Then came those two giant home wins over highly ranked South Carolina and LSU. Gurley rambled for 130 mostly tough yards on 30 carries against the Gamecocks, and although he left the LSU game in the second quarter with an ankle injury, at that point he had 73 yards on eight carries for an average of 9.1 yards per run.
When he returned against Florida later that season, Gurley obviously was out of shape from a month off, and a 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter left the great Georgia running back wiped out physically, but he gamely returned to the fray in the second half, and though he was obviously running on fumes, he still managed to gut out a third-down conversion by the tip of the football on that final Georgia drive thanks to his second effort. Gurley wound up the day with 100 yards on 17 carries and three receptions for another 87 yards that make him the Dogs’ leading receiver of the day in yardage.
Catching passes was another of Gurley’s talents that grew more important as his time at UGA progressed. In last year’s Auburn game, he caught 10 passes for 77 yards, the most passes caught that day by any Bulldog.
Gurley’s sophomore season also saw him becoming known for another trademark, his Superman-like leaps toward the end zone, breaking the plane of the goal line with the ball in one hand.
I think my favorite Gurley game, though, was in the regular-season finale in Atlanta last year against Tech, as the Dawgs clawed their way back into the game and then broke the Jackets’ hearts by winning 41-34 in double-overtime, with Gurley scoring two of his three touchdowns for the day in extra time. Georgia’s plan in overtime was simple, as Mark Richt explained after the game: “We just kind of handed the ball to Big Boy,” meaning Gurley.
It was was one of the most imposing performances I’ve seen by a Georgia tailback.
Expectations were sky-high for Gurley this season, with Richt telling an offseason fan gathering: “When Todd’s healthy and Todd’s in shape he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around, up close. I saw film of Herschel Walker, I’ve seen film of other people. But to just say I’ve coached him or had a close-up look at the guy, he could be as good as any of them. … He loves to play in the big games. He’s a good player.”
Starting with this year’s Clemson game and one of those kickoff returns for more than 100 yards (which still has to be one of the most oft-played clips on ESPN this season), Gurley showed what he could do when fully healthy, running, catching, hurdling players like Knowshon Moreno and even throwing, as he completed a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich out of the Wild Dawg formation. That week, he topped just about every survey of Heisman Trophy candidates.
Then came word that Georgia had suspended Gurley for a possible NCAA rules violation. We’ve already dealt here at length with that whole situation, the unfairness of the rule to players on the one hand, and, on the other, Gurley’s shortsighted decisionmaking in endangering his college career for what will eventually seem like chump change to him.
But it’s worth noting that Gurley returned to the field for UGA when it perhaps would have made more sense for him to simply move on and prepare for his NFL career. Also noteworthy was that neither Gurley’s teammates nor the vast majority of the Bulldog Nation thought less of No. 3 as a result of what became his four-game suspension. Instead, excitement and anticipation over his impending return built to a crescendo over the past week.
And, true to form, the first time he touched the ball Saturday night, he lived up to his big-game, big-time player reputation.
If that’s the last we see of Todd Gurley in a Georgia uniform, we can at least take solace in all the enjoyment we had watching one of college football’s all-time greats become a star while playing Between the Hedges. And that we have another superstar-in-the-making taking his place in Nick Chubb.
Thanks for the memories, Todd. You’re a Damn Good Dawg!
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.