ATHENS — Todd Gurley knows the storied history of Georgia’s running backs.
Herschel Walker. Terrell Davis. Knowshon Moreno.
He also knows the much different path taken by some of his more recent predecessors.
Isaiah Crowell. Washaun Ealey. Caleb King.
All arrived on campus with plenty of hype. None of them lived up to it between the hedges, their careers sidetracked by everything from off-the-field troubles to pompous attitudes.
Gurley is determined not to go down that path.
“You just want to stay on top of things and try not to make the wrong decisions,” he said. “It’s so easy to get in trouble and so hard to get out of trouble.”
So far, he’s off to a good start.
Gurley had quite the debut for the Bulldogs (1-0) last Saturday, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries. That’s not all. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score, leading No. 7 Georgia to a 45-23 win over Buffalo.
It seems just a matter of time before Gurley takes over as the starter — perhaps as soon as Saturday night’s first Southeastern Conference game at Missouri — but Gurley shot down that sort of talk.
He wants to fit in with his teammates and quietly earn everything he gets. He quickly deferred to the guy who started the opener, third-year sophomore Ken Malcome.
“Ken is the starter,” Gurley said, more decisive about the depth chart than even the coaching staff. “He started the last game. He’s still going to be the starter this game.”
No matter who takes the first snap, Gurley will surely get plenty of playing time against the Tigers (1-0). Coach Mark Richt is impressed with the freshman’s physical tools, but seems more excited about the intangibles.
His humble demeanor. His willingness to listen and learn.
“Everything I’ve seen so far has been outstanding,” Richt said. “He got a couple of As in classes he took this summer. He showed up to everything we asked him to show up to, on time. He’s got a good attitude. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of entitlement.”
Those were telling words from a coach who clearly went a bit overboard after the Bulldogs landed Crowell, the state’s top prospect a year ago. He was essentially anointed the starter on signing day, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that he showed up in Athens like he owned the place. He turned up hours late for a scheduled interview session. He treated schoolwork like an imposition. He failed a drug test, loafed at practice and irritated his teammates.
Even though Crowell showed plenty of promise on the field, leading the Bulldogs in rushing and winning the SEC’s freshman of the year award, it wasn’t much of a surprise when he was arrested on a felony weapons charge after the season. He was quickly booted off the team by Richt, who is determined not to make the same mistake with Gurley or another freshman back, Keith Marshall.
“When you have success early it can change a guy,” Richt said. “It can make you feel comfortable too soon. We have not sat down and talked to (Gurley) about it, but we do have to keep an eye on him.”
In recent years, none of Georgia’s most-hyped runners has been able to complete his college career with the Bulldogs.
Crowell is now playing at lower-division Alabama State. Ealey, the leading rusher in 2009 and ‘10, took a similar path after he was arrested for a hit-and-run accident on the Georgia campus and failed to follow through on disciplinary measures. He wound up transferring to FCS school Jacksonville State, where he was arrested on misdemeanor drug charges just this week.
King, who was one of the state’s top prep prospects, turned out to be nothing more than a backup at Georgia. He, too, was arrested after he failed to appear in court for a speeding ticket and wound up being declared academically ineligible for his final season with the Bulldogs. He tried to make it in the NFL, but was has been cut a couple of times.
Those at the examples Gurley wants to avoid.
“He knows the situation that occurred here,” said Georgia’s star linebacker, Jarvis Jones. “You’ve got to know what you want. You’ve got to sacrifice some things, not get in trouble and make the right decisions to get where you want to be. I think him and Keith and the rest of those guys have got their heads on straight and know where they want to go. They’ve been striving for it since day one.”
Gurley and Marshall are both highly rated backs from North Carolina who were intrigued by the possibilities at Georgia, a team that bounced back from an 0-2 start last season to win the SEC East.
Marshall graduated early from high school so he could enroll at Georgia. Gurley decided to play for the Bulldogs, as well, even though he knew he’d have to compete for playing time with another top freshman. They’re roommates and have remained good friends, even though there’s plenty of competition once they step out on the field.
“There’s a lot of things you can dream and hope, but they’re still very young in their careers,” said Mike Bobo, the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator. “They have a chance to be great players for us, knock on wood, as long as they stay healthy and keep getting better over time.”
Gurley is taking nothing for granted.
Heck, there were a couple of immediate things to work on from his first game. For one, he had to leave for a while because he got lightheaded on a sweltering day. Might want to work on that conditioning a little more. Also, he let go of the ball a little soon on one of his scores. The officials didn’t catch it, but his coaches and teammates noticed.
Gurley can take the critique.
“There’s a lot of things I need to work on,” he said.
That sort of attitude will go a long way in Athens.