Have Your Cake

ATHENS - Todd Gurley, a recruiting afterthought for some, slammed his way to one of the most successful freshman campaigns in Georgia history. What will he do for an encore?

Terry Norman has been the bookkeeper at Tarboro High School for years and had grown to admire Todd Gurley by January 2012.

So when Gurley let it be known that he was going to pick his college destination during a press conference at the high school, Norman decided that she would bake a celebratory cake for him to have as a refreshment after the event concluded. This would be Gurley's chance to have his cake… and eat it, too, so to speak.

Decision days are special for prospects, and for those who know them, too.

"So where is he going to college?" Norman asked Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock days before the press conference. It was a basic question that was going to have to be answered at some point by someone. Norman didn't really care where Gurley was going or why. She just needed to know so she could put the colors of the team Gurley was about to pick on the cake she was making.

"Make it yellow and purple," Craddock responded. "I don't know where he's going… he's not told me yet, so just make it our colors."

Norman went to work the day before the event – making the purple and gold Tarboro cake to match the Vikings' colors. But when she placed the cake down moments before the event there was a problem – the purple and gold of the Vikings wasn't quite right. During the baking the yellow had turned orange somehow, but the purple remained intact.

It was obvious for the world to see – orange and purple could have only meant one school in the nation… Clemson.

A snooping reporter took the cake to be an obvious clue and reported that the Tigers had a new running back on the way, but Craddock knew otherwise. Although he'd been clear with Gurley that he didn't want to know where the running back was going before the announcement, Craddock checked to make sure Gurley was ready for everything the day before.

"You good to go?" Craddock asked.

"Yes, coach. I am going to Georgia," Gurley said.

"Wait! I didn't want to know that," Craddock said with equal parts disappointment and high-pitched excitement.

The rest of the world was about to find out two things Craddock already knew – 1. Where Todd Gurley was going to college; 2. That Gurley was the real deal.

No Easy Drive

There is no easy way to get to Athens, Georgia from Tarboro, North Carolina – a fact that didn't stop the Bulldogs from recruiting Gurley.

"I really don't know how far it is," Craddock said. "But I know it's not close, and it's not easy to get to."

Travel was one thing, but what seemed to complicate recruiting matters more was that Georgia already had a 2012 five-star running back, Keith Marshall, who had enrolled and was working out with the team when Gurley was making his final decision. To get two top-flight backs was a very difficult accomplishment in back-to-back classes, but to get two in the same class was very, very challenging.

But what many folks didn't know was that Marshall and Gurley had grown to know one another through the North Carolina track circuit.

"Todd ran hurdles," Marshall said. "I mainly did sprints."

Eventually both prep stars started talking about playing football in college together – a notion that's thrown around a lot by young boys, but never really taken seriously… particularly considering the fact that the two played the same exact position and were in the same class.

"The word kept coming back that the two backs were pretty sincere about being on the same team," Georgia coach Mark Richt, a veteran of more than two decades of recruiting fights, said. "Sometimes guys say that, but it's not likely."

But Marshall and Gurley were not like most other high school running backs. Marshall was not just an outstanding prospect, but also a star student with on-the-field and off-the-field credentials. Gurley, too, was the sort of prospect who was taken seriously off the field.

Still, Richt knew the history of two high-level running backs signing in the same class. That problem existed for Georgia; but the Bulldogs had another problem, too: standout, but troubled running back Isaiah Crowell was still on Georgia's roster, and he would only be a sophomore in 2012.

"I thought those two guys were sincere about wanting to play together. Keith made the decision prior to Todd, and it was very, very, very close with Keith," Richt said. "Clemson had done a good job with him. He wasn't sure until the very end there. We felt like we had a good shot at Todd. He still felt good about Georgia."

Gurley let Marshall know a little bit ahead of time that he was picking the Bulldogs. So, Gurley and Marshall came up with a plan to get their future position coach, Bryan McClendon.

"We both called him up each time before we committed, and let him know that we were going to Clemson," Marshall said. "He told me the time I committed that he thought a lot of me and wished me the best of luck. That's when I told him: ‘Nah coach, I'm coming to Georgia."

"He just started laughing," Marshall remembered.

About a month later Gurley did the same thing to McClendon – suddenly Georgia's future at running back was set. Marshall and Gurley were committed and signed soon thereafter. Marshall enrolled early and was on campus in January of 2012. Five-star running back Derrick Henry was committed, too. Meanwhile freshman standout Isaiah Crowell, with whom McClendon had won a tough two-year recruiting battle over Alabama, was returning for the 2012 campaign with high expectations for what he could accomplish running injury-free the entire season.

The future was bright indeed.

But by the summer Henry had de-committed from Georgia and, of much more immediate importance, Crowell had been dismissed by Richt after being arrested on weapons charges during a routine police check near dorms where many of the players live.

Dramatically and suddenly, by July 1st Georgia's running back future looked rough.

"Keith Marshall had better be very, very good," most fans thought; "and maybe Gurley will help".

The opposite turned out to be true in 2012 – which is not to say Marshall had a bad 2012 himself. Marshall was explosive and impressive by the end of the year. His catch in Georgia's New Year's Day win over Nebraska in the 2013 Capital One Bowl seemed to show just how far he had come, and how much further he could go.

But Georgia leaned on Gurley the entire year – a fact that was not immediately obvious until August.

"When he was running around in the summer, I knew he was a big-bodied kid," Murray said. "But you couldn't get too much of a feel with no pads… he couldn't run anyone over. I was like: ‘Yeah well, he looks good, but I don't really know anything about him yet.'"

Then Gurley put on pads and started real-deal practices at Georgia. Summer passing practices are for quarterbacks and receivers. Running backs need to get physical. What Todd Gurley needed to do was put on pads. And what everyone else needed to do was take cover.

"My brother and I were sitting out there at fall camp, and I remember watching Todd run," offensive lineman John Theus said. "We said: ‘This kid is special.' He's a big, physical back. He's got those big legs and that big old behind, and he uses it."

During fall camp Gurley was creating a buzz by averaging runs of eight yards per carry during scrimmages. Safety Shawn Williams compared him to former Alabama back Trent Richardson.

"I think he probably compared me to him because of me wearing number three, and I have dreads like Trent Richardson," Gurley said that August.

But Williams was right – Gurley was a lot like Richardson, and that was just what Georgia needed. Gurley showcased his skill the first game of his career.

"He had a great first game against Buffalo," Marshall said. "I was just trying to make sure I could contribute as well."

Marshall's time would come, but not before Gurley established himself as a bruising, powerful running back the likes of which Georgia had not seen in a long, long time.

He became the first Georgia player ever to be named SEC Freshman of the Week after his first game ever (Gurley shared the award with Alabama's T.J. Yeldon). Gurley ended with 100 yards and two touchdowns rushing on eight carries. He added a 100-yard kickoff return for good measure.

Suddenly everyone was seeing what Jeff Craddock and Mark Richt were well aware of… Todd Gurley was a star, and he put an exclamation point on the day with his kickoff return. Gurley was moving very fast for such a large object… it seemed hard to believe unless you saw it live.

"That first kickoff return," quarterback Aaron Murray said with a big giggle. "Ever since that game Todd has skyrocketed."

Skyrocketed indeed.

But Craddock argued a year later that he didn't know why Gurley was only rated as a four-star player coming out of high school.

"I'd like to see a five-star if he's a four-star," Craddock said this summer of his former running back. "He was out here rolling people."

The rolling continued in college.

And Murray was the major beneficiary of Gurley's rolling. For the first two years of his career, Murray had varying degrees of talent to hand the ball off to. Nonetheless, the Tampa native didn't have dependability behind him until Gurley and Marshall arrived on campus.

"There is no better friend for a quarterback than a great running game," Murray said. "Todd and Keith are unbelievable. When they have an entire offseason it will really help. Especially for Todd, because he didn't have the spring to get used to things like Keith did."

By late October Georgia had positioned itself in a do-or-die game with Florida. Gurley, like Georgia, had struggled in the previous two games against South Carolina and Kentucky. But the Bulldogs were in position, somehow, to win the Florida game and march on to Atlanta for the second season in a row.

The formula to beat the Gators was to, well, beat them up with Gurley… and it worked. Gurley scored the first touchdown of the game, and carried the Dawgs on his back the remainder of it. If Murray ever needed help from a running back it was three interceptions into the 2012 Florida game.

No need to fret – Murray could just stand by and give the ball to Gurley – 27 times for 118 yards and a touchdown. By the time Murray recovered to find Malcolm Mitchell on a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter Florida's defense was spent. Jarvis Jones made his now-famous strip in the shadow of the goal line, Sanders Commings recovered and Murray handed the ball off a few more times to Gurley as the Bulldogs iced the game and propelled themselves back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.

"I think we all knew he was going to be special," Theus said. "But I don't think we knew how well he was going to do."

"With Todd's size… teams are just worn out," Murray said of Gurley's performances at the end of games. "He's done a great job of conditioning so that he can play a full game. When you get to the end of the game people just don't want to tackle him."

Away From It All

"We like those five-dollar movies," Keith Marshall said with a smile of the time he spends away from football with Todd Gurley.

Life can't be all about Georgia football, and Gurley is a prime example that it is not. The North Carolina native is a huge basketball fan and loves his Baltimore Ravens. It's hidden from cameras, but Gurley has been known to wear Duke basketball gear after practices at Georgia. He went on Twitter to cheer about the Ravens' Super Bowl win in February.

"I remember one time when Todd was in his room alone, and we all heard someone yelling," Theus said. "We were all wondering what was going on. I went in there, and he was yelling at the TV. He's a big Carmelo Anthony fan. He loves Melo. He was in there screaming at the TV because Melo was going off. Todd was going crazy. He was all by himself going crazy. That's Todd, and he does love basketball."

Todd Gurley is a person; a fan; a human being – he's not just a huge body carrying a football.

But that reality, playing football – being a star football player – in football-obsessed Athens is uniquely challenging for recognizable players like Murray and Gurley.

"Without a doubt – you can't miss Todd," Theus said. "Todd – and Keith, too – he's shy. He will talk and be polite, but he's not going to go out of his way to talk to people he doesn't know."

That's the hard part for Gurley. Everyone wants to know him, but he only feels comfortable being himself around people he knows.

"I think Todd has done a great job of handling his success and fame," Murray said. "I don't think he's going to get a big head. I see him as very reliable, too."

"When we go together anywhere – like the mall – we get recognized pretty fast," Marshall said. "People want to take pictures when the two of us are together. I've been asked to take pictures with Todd everywhere – downtown, on campus, the mall… even here in the Butts-Mehre. Pretty much everywhere, but a lot of people on the football team get asked to take pictures."

Probably not like "Gurshall" – the nickname given to the two-headed running back machine combining Gurley's and Marshall's last names. "Gurshall" brings back memories of the most famous of Georgia names – Herschel Walker.

The attention means the duo tries to make the most of the time out of the spotlight – and that's where Todd Gurley really gets to be himself.

"We always get movies out of those big buckets at Wal-Mart and watch them," Marshall said. "Todd showed me Scarface. I had never seen it. I'd never seen Superbad, either."

"I was in there the night they were watching Scarface," Theus said. "But Todd loves to watch The Simpsons… he's always watching The Simpsons."

"I think it really helps the two of them that they are roommates," Murray said of the relationship between Gurley and Marshall. "I am sure they talk about football or just whatever. They are great friends from what I see."

"No, we don't talk a lot about football," Marshall said. "We do enough football already."

"I think it's a good thing for those two to get away," Theus said of Gurley and Marshall. "When we are at practice we are working, but when we get away we are not working."

"The thing about Todd, too, is that he's always goofing around off the field. No one knows that, but he's always smiling. He's a little shy at first and a little bit timid, but once you get around him for a while...I have never seen Todd when he is not smiling at practice. Some guys are loose, and they can perform. I think Todd is that way. Once you get to know Todd, he's nuts. He's goofy," Theus said.

In many ways Georgia's fans already know what they need to know about Gurley, and they don't need to know more. They know he wears Silver Britches and a red jersey with the number three on it. They know he's got dreadlocks and has a bruising running style. They also know he's from North Carolina.

Beyond that, Gurley is a bit of a mystery. Still, Gurley is the type of player that lets Georgia fans have their cake, and eat it, too. Just make that cake red and black this time.

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