ATHENS, Ga. – To say that Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon is relieved to see the work true freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have put in is downplaying the significance of their contributions.
For a position that has been so snake bitten the last few years, these two have brought encouragement back to the running back position with their play and their attitudes.
“Relieving is a bit of an understatement,” McClendon said with an enormous smile.
Through three games, they’ve combined for 458 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with Gurley leading the team with 276 of those yards and four scores. But as their fame grows, so does their humility, which is very refreshing to McClendon.
It’s also helps that they’re perfectionists. Their individual skill is unmistakable, but their obsession with correcting and improving the small things has tremendously helped their development.
“Being consistent with all the small stuff is one thing that’s helped those guys to get in the position to make those big runs,” McClendon said. “Obviously, their ability takes over, but their attention to detail is uncanny for the being as young as they are.”
It can be difficult for young players to grasp the importance of fundamentals, especially when they’re used to just grabbing the ball and going. But Gurley and Marshall are different. Their willingness to excel in all areas have helped them become that much more reliable at a position that has seen a truckload of talent disappear over the years.
With former starters like Washaun Ealey, Caleb King and Isaiah Crowell leaving the program within the last year because of off-field issues, there was fear that Gurley and Marshall would become statistics instead of players.
Fortunately for Georgia’s staff, the freshmen had other plans.
“We’re just trying to do the right thing and hope none of that happens to us,” Gurley said.
So, for the first time in a while, Georgia has a backfield it can completely rely on. With Ken Malcome, who opened the season as the starter, banged up, more has been put on the freshmen, and they’ve responded without nerves or hesitation.
“There’s nothing to really be nervous about because we know what to do,” Marshall said.
Center David Andrews has been thoroughly impressed with the kids, as well. He said blocking for them is much easier because they’re both smart and talented.
This offense has seen a significant increase in big plays from the backfield with Gurley and Marshall. Last year, the longest run from a true Georgia running back was a 29-yarder by Crowell.
This year, Gurley and Marshall have combined to rush for seven runs of 20-or-more yards. Gurley has runs of 55, 44 and 38 to go along with a 100-yard kickoff return that went for a touchdown.
“They’re two special guys. There’s no doubt about it,” Andrews said. “We just need them to stay healthy because they’re definitely reliable guys.”
They’re also good friends and roommates, which Gurley said helps them become even better players. Even though they’re fighting for the starting spot at the same position, Gurley said their time together away from the field helps them on it. They pick each other’s brains, give advice and go over technique.
“We have a good relationship, which is hard to come across for people at the same position and are competing (for the starting spot),” Gurley said.
When they have down time, they lighten the mood by playing H.O.R.S.E. in their dorm with a mini basketball hoop, which Gurley says he dominates regularly.
While Gurley has the edge in mini-ball, he wouldn’t be the same without Marshall on the field. The two complement each other with their running styles, as Gurley is the pounder and Marshall is the speedster. It not only frees them up for breathers, but it helps the offense, expanding what it can do.
Both still have a ways to go, but for the first time in a while, the Bulldogs can rely on their backfield to help guide this offense.