Fans offered up a muted cheer when it was announced the true freshman tailback had broken 1,000 yards rushing with a second-quarter burst in Saturday’s 45-14 victory over Georgia Southern.
The crowd at Sanford Stadium didn’t fail to recognize the number’s importance to a true freshman and the program. It was that Gurley had become so consistent that Georgia fans had come to expect it. Coach Mark Richt even used the word spoiled to describe just how accustomed Georgia had become to big runs from Gurley and fellow freshman tailback Keith Marshall.
Gurley finished Saturday’s game with 68 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, pushing his season total to 1,036 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 164 carries. They’re numbers that legitimize in many ways the comparisons to legendary Georgia running back and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, the only other true freshman to break the 1,000-yard mark at Georgia.
“It’s just a blessing to have that (1,000-yard milestone),” Gurley said. “But there’s still a lot of football to be thinking, ‘I’ve got a thousand yards, so I’ve got to chill.’ We have three games left, so it’s a whole lot. I’ll look back on it at the end of the season and maybe a couple years from now. But there’s a lot of football to be played.”
To understand just how drastic a change Gurley and Marshall have ushered in with less than a season under their belts, think back to the last time Georgia brought in a late-season, out-of-conference opponent.
The depth at tailback was mowed down last November when New Mexico State came to Sanford Stadium. Isaiah Crowell, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome were suspended, and a former walk-on Brandon Harton and walk-on Kyle Karempelis filled in.
The backups did their teammates proud with their day in the spotlight, but it was about the only positive Georgia could find in the drama that surrounded the position at that point last season.
Things only got uglier in the offseason.
Thomas voluntarily left the team in March with plans to transfer, and Crowell’s arrest led to a prompt dismissal in June.
“Our running game was in question, (as well as) the line with us losing three guys that got drafted last year,” Richt said. “All the sudden, we’ve got to fill three holes on the line, and we don’t know who our backs are going to be.”
Putting the ball into the hands of a pair of freshmen, as highly touted as they were, and expecting them to step into Southeastern Conference football and succeed seemed like a tall order and hardly a solution to what was shaping up to be a meltdown in the backfield.
“You never know about any recruit when you sign them,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said “You believe you sign really good players, but how they’re going to adapt to a new offense, to college life, that’s a lot of things on those guys.”
But Gurley and Marshall have been a perfectly complementary duo, combining for 1,690 yards and 18 touchdowns. They have been consistent, and maybe more crucially, they’ve been healthy and trouble-free. Mix in Malcome’s return and his 271 yards and two touchdowns and Bobo has a lot less to lose sleep about.
“We’ve got continuity there, we’ve got competition there every week,” Bobo said of the tailbacks. “We’ve got three backs that I feel really good about, and they’re doing a nice job.”
Saturday’s 1,000-yard mark wasn’t the end of the goals Gurley said he has set for himself and the team, especially with a rivalry game, an SEC championship and a bowl victory to play for. It’s just a start to even bigger things to celebrate, quarterback Aaron Murray said.
“The scary thing is that they’re only freshmen,” Murray said. “Imagine when they’re sophomores, juniors and seniors how good they’re going to be. It’s a scary thought.”