ATHENS — For Todd Gurley, the key to avoiding another injury marred season is simple.
"Just run harder," he said, chuckling.
Georgia's dynamic running back will be on display in one of the key games of college football's opening weekend, leading the No. 12 Bulldogs against 16th-ranked Clemson.
A year ago, the Tigers started the season by beating Georgia 38-35 in a matchup of Top 10 teams. Gurley ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns, but knows it could have been so much more.
In the middle of a 75-yard touchdown run on his second touch of the game, he pulled his quadriceps trying to avoid a tackler. He wound up carrying the ball only 12 times.
"I couldn't really lift my leg up like I wanted to," Gurley recalled. "I'm known for breaking tackles, but I definitely couldn't do that like I wanted to."
Assuming Gurley has fully recovered, Clemson will have its hands full trying to stop Georgia's running game. The Bulldogs have a backup (Keith Marshall) who could start at plenty of schools, and a couple of touted freshmen (Sony Michel and Nick Chubb) who might get some playing time right away.
Gurley is the main concern.
"He's a beast," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "The combination that he has, just the size, the speed, the strength. I perceive him to be a great worker. He seems that way. He's got a big motor to him and he's just unique from a total package standpoint."
After rushing for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman, drawing comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, Gurley played in only 10 games as a sophomore.
The quadriceps injury was only the start of his problems. Gurley sprained an ankle against LSU, knocking him out of three games and limiting his effectiveness in others. He finished with 989 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
"I just don't want it to happen again," he said.
Beyond Gurley, some things to watch for in this showdown between schools that are just 59 miles apart:
QUARTERBACK SHUFFLE: Senior Cole Stoudt is the new starting quarterback at Clemson, but keep an eye on Deshaun Watson. The touted freshman is a dual threat, setting Georgia state high school records with 17,134 yards and 218 touchdowns passing and rushing. He's expected to get some playing time in the opener, and Clemson fans will surely be calling for more if Watson plays well against the Bulldogs.
DEFENSIVE GEORGIA: The Bulldogs have a new defensive coordinator, luring Jeremy Pruitt from national champion Florida State. Pruitt pushed the guys up front to lose weight and get quicker, but the success of this unit will likely depend on the revamped secondary. Two starters were kicked off the team, and another decided to transfer. Cornerback Damian Swann is the only returning starter for a group that could include two freshmen. Head coach Mark Richt said of Pruitt, "He's driven to have a great defense. Over time, I think he'll do a phenomenal job."
BEASLEY THE BEAST: Clemson's Vic Beasley is one of the country's best defensive ends, topping the Atlantic Coast Conference with 13 sacks a year ago. Fortunately for the Tigers, he decided to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. The Bulldogs know that Beasley will require extra attention from the offensive line. "Whoever lines up against Beasley has got his hands full," Richt said, "and is probably going to need some help."
STARTING TIME: Georgia fifth-year senior Hutson Mason is heading into his lone season as the starting quarterback after serving as Aaron Murray's understudy the last four years. Mason started the final two games of 2013 (Murray was injured) and the Bulldogs don't expect much of a drop-off. "It feels to a certain degree like we've got a veteran starter back with us," Richt said. "Usually when you have a new quarterback, you're wondering what they can comprehend, how they'll handle being the starter. Some of those questions have already been answered with him. I don't think a whole lot about it."
AILING RECEIVERS: Georgia will be without two of its top receivers. Malcolm Mitchell sustained another knee injury while working out just before the start of preseason practice, while Justin Scott-Wesley is sitting out after being charged with marijuana possession. Scott-Wesley is coming back from a knee injury and there was speculation he wouldn't have been ready to go anyway.