- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yes, Keith Marshall might have been the running back signee who arrived at Georgia with the high-profile recruiting pedigree -- ESPN rated Marshall as the nation's No. 5 overall prospect and the No. 2 tailback -- but McClendon devoted too much time and effort to securing Gurley's signature to call him a steal.
"It definitely wasn't a steal. You worked your tail off on that one," McClendon laughed. "I don't even look at all the ratings and that stuff. I train myself not to, so I don't even know what he was rated. But I know when you looked at his film and you went and watched him play, it was like, 'Man, this is one of the best dudes out there this year.' So that's how we approached it."
In truth, all of the major recruiting services also touted Gurley's potential -- ESPN rated him as a four-star prospect -- so he isn't exactly chopped liver. But some wondered whether Gurley would choose the Bulldogs too after Marshall committed last December.
Gurley, however, witnessed the many problems Georgia experienced last season with backfield injuries and disciplinary issues. He knew that he would have a chance to contribute, even if the Bulldogs were about to add Marshall to a backfield that already included last year's SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell, Richard Samuel and Ken Malcome.
"It's really not about that. It's really just making your own decision," said Gurley, the North Carolina Associated Press Player of the Year last fall after rushing for 2,600 yards and 38 touchdowns in leading Tarboro High School to its third straight state championship. "You shouldn't let someone else, just because they go somewhere, it shouldn't determine where you should go. So I just kept Georgia in my schools. And nowadays you don't want to carry the load by yourself. You want to have two, three other running backs you can share with."
Georgia's coaches talked up Gurley's potential from the start, but they seemed unsure on signing day whether Gurley would contribute this season. Carlton Thomas' transfer and Crowell's dismissal after a felony handgun possession arrest removed any doubt.
Now, instead of competing for playing time, Gurley remains in the hunt to become the Bulldogs' starting tailback -- and his team-high 58 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries in the team's first scrimmage Wednesday did not hurt his cause.
"They told me to be ready. It was depending on me, how I picked up the system and came in there, if I would be redshirted," Gurley said of his initial instructions from Georgia's staff. "It's sad that Isaiah left. I wish he could be here, but I just kept doing what I was doing and I picked up the system pretty good."
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Friday that he thinks Marshall and Gurley are both ready to run the ball against SEC defenses now. He believes they still have a lot to learn about the nuances of their position, particularly in pass blocking, but said they both will be on the field this fall.
"I just think whoever's the most productive, we've got to get them in the game. So if it's one of those two guys, get them in there," Richt said. "If they're in there a lot, it's probably because they're doing good. It's a good sign. I'm not afraid to play them. We're definitely going to play them a bunch."
It probably helps accelerate Gurley's maturation process that he practices against Georgia's defense every day. He said, "I came out with a little headache," after failing to get his shoulders low enough before a collision with linebacker Alec Ogletree during the Bulldogs' scrimmage, and he has had similar run-ins with big-hitting safety Corey Moore.
And when defensive end Cornelius Washington breaks loose into the backfield, it triggers Gurley's instincts for self-preservation.
"I know every time I'm about to get the ball and he's coming, I'm trying to cut back to the other side," Gurley laughed.
The good news is he has the ability to make something good happen even after he does that, as Gurley possesses an array of tailback skills -- speed, size, toughness and balance.
And best of all, particularly in light of the discipline problems that infected Georgia's backfield in recent seasons, he's a quick study who likes to maintain a low profile. Multiple coaches and teammates have noticed, with several commenting on how frequently Gurley and Marshall turn to veterans Samuel and Malcome for advisement.
"Since summer started, the older guys were helping out. They weren't selfish people just because we're younger guys," Gurley said. "They're all helping. I expect to do that when other running backs come in in the future, so they're just a great help. I wouldn't even be where I'm at right now if it wasn't for the older guys."
Those same veterans might have to fight off the freshmen for playing time, although Marshall and Gurley have envisioned a timeshare between the group from the beginning. It appears their plans are about to come to fruition.
"Rarely is it one guy," Marshall said. "You know, [Alabama had] Trent Richardson, they had Mark Ingram and they had Eddie Lacy last year, so everybody has more than one running back to get the job done, so that's not what we worry about."
As he continues to improve on the subtleties at tailback that the coaching staff demands, Gurley might have as good a shot as anyone at becoming the Bulldogs' starter this season -- even if he played second banana when both he and Marshall signed with Georgia during the winter.
"We feel like we got a very valuable guy," McClendon said. "Now what he was rated and whether he gets wrote up as being a star, I don't know."
If Gurley keeps running the ball the way he did in Wednesday's scrimmage, it's a safe bet that he will no longer suffer from a lack of attention.