ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt spent the preseason hoping what he was seeing from freshman tailback Todd Gurley in the tackle-free scrimmages was what he’d get when an arm finally reached out and did more than tag him.
“As you watch (the scrimmages), you’re like, ‘There’s a pretty good chance he’d break that tackle or that tackle,’” Richt said.
But freshmen are a gamble, and giving Gurley much of an opportunity in the season opener against Buffalo on Saturday wasn’t a sure bet.
He came to Athens as part of a highly recruited duo with fellow North Carolina native Keith Marshall, but Gurley was considered a little less refined, less polished, than Marshall, who got a head start by enrolling in the spring.
Richt rolled the dice and won. Big.
He found someone capable of returning a kick, of bursting through the middle of the line and of breaking tackles.
He saw someone make a move to be named a starter after coaches waited until just a little more than a week before the first game to name one.
What Richt saw Saturday was just more of what he had seen all summer from the 6-foot-1, 218-pound true freshman.
“He averaged what he averaged every scrimmage, about 12.5 yards per carry,” Richt said. “I hope that’s a trend. I won’t be betting on that the rest of his career, but everybody got a chance to see what we had seen in some of these scrimmages — a guy that obviously has some tackle-breaking ability and some speed for a big man.”
And after rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries and running back a kickoff 100 yards for a score, Gurley gave Richt someone capable of being a star at a position that hasn’t been awfully popular lately in Athens.
Sure, it was unranked Buffalo.
But the fact that it was Buffalo didn’t stop the Georgia defense from struggling at times.
That it was Buffalo didn’t make it any easier for the Georgia offensive line to protect quarterback Aaron Murray, who was sacked three times.
It was Buffalo, and Gurley was about the only one to make the best out of it.
It was something the fans at Sanford Stadium seemed to appreciate, and it drew the attention of some former Georgia players.
Gurley’s 100-yard kick return tied Georgia’s record for longest return, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Brandon Boykin, who shares the record, took notice.
“Gurley tryna to come for my KR record lol! He a beast!,” Boykin tweeted.
Another mention came from Isaiah Crowell, the former Georgia tailback and SEC Freshman of the Year who was dismissed after an arrest in June and now plays at Alabama State.
“good job lil bra! I see u!!!!!!be better than me..,” Crowell tweeted.
But finding someone who can show flashes of brilliance worthy of praise isn’t hard at a Division I program with fancy facilities, nice weather and a couple of national championships.
It’s finding people who can do it again and do it when it matters.
Gurley did a lot on Saturday, but he didn’t prove he can do any of those things.
But maybe as important is handling the weight that comes with 200 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in a debut, and Gurley said he’s ready for that.
“I mean, that’s what we signed up for as football players, as college football players and playing for a top program,” Gurley said. “I guess we’re just going to have to get used to it and take it and handle it the right way.”
Ready or not, the spotlight’s on.