ATHENS -- Keith Marshall got a text message after Georgias first game this season. It was from Isaiah Crowell.
He said good luck, Marshall said. And congratulations.
Marshall got to know Crowell during the spring, when they were teammates. Then came the June day when Crowell was dismissed from the team, and the Bulldogs football team entered this season with the running game yet again a major issue.
Three games in, this has become apparent: The Bulldogs dont miss Crowell after all, thanks to Marshall and fellow freshman Todd Gurley.
Those two both have a 100-yard game to their credit. Gurley is on pace for a 1,104-yard season and Marshall for 728, but thats only for a 12-game season, not counting any possible conference championship or bowl game action. The big concern when Crowell left was that, for all his durability and discipline issues, he was the best breakaway threat in the backfield. After all, he was the SEC freshman of the year in 2011.
Youre worried, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said this week. You lost a guy that had 900 yards rushing and thought he was gonna be better going into his second year, having the maturity and all that. And losing (receiver Malcolm) Mitchell when hes gonna go to defense, thats a lot of offense that youre losing that still could be here. So theres some concern.
But when those guys (Marshall and Gurley) got here, and how they approached their work ethic daily, and their mindset, I thought they had a chance to be good players for us, and hopefully thatll continue on this season.
The Bulldogs are especially heartened that Gurley and Marshall uncorked some long runs. Gurley had a 55-yard touchdown run against Buffalo, and Marshall broke a 28-yarder last Saturday against Florida Atlantic. While those werent marquee opponents, Gurley also had a long run at Missouri, getting the Bulldogs away from their end zone.
Breakaway runs have not been a staple of the offense lately. Crowells longest run last year was for 29 yards, and that was the longest for any tailback.
Weve had more opportunities to make safeties miss, it seems like, in the first three games than we had all last year put together, head coach Mark Richt said, meaning that the tailbacks are getting into the secondary. So how many times have they made the safety miss and taken it to the house? Thats kind of the next stage of development for those guys that Id like to see them improve on.
So how have Gurley and Marshall turned around the teams tailback fortunes? Part of the credit goes to the offensive line, which has been much better at run-blocking. Guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, returning starters from last year, have helped first-year starter David Andrews at center to make the interior blocking go well.
The passing game has also improved, with Bobo opening the playbook up with a spread formation. Much of the time, Georgia has been using the pass to set up the run, a bit of a change for the team.
Then theres one more factor in the tailbacks favor: Coolness under fire.
Senior Tavarres King raved about how relaxed and confident Gurley and Marshall are, whether its practice or gamedays.
I was telling my roommate, (fellow receiver) Rhett McGowan, Ive never seen anything like that, King said. When I came in, my head was spinning. Those two are down there joking, laughing, and just having fun. Things I wish I couldve (done). Theyre just enjoying and not worrying about anything. I wish I couldve done that, instead of just being uptight. Those guys, theyre unlike anything Ive ever seen.
Marshall and Gurley have been close since high school in their native North Carolina, when they befriended each other through state track meets, and then recruiting. Marshall committed to Georgia first, then Gurley decided to join him a few days later. Now they room together in Athens.
Their other roommate, freshman tackle John Theus, called them two of the hardest workers he has ever known.
Todd is one of the funniest, different dudes Ive ever met, Theus said. I cannot describe it. Its just Todd. Hes goofy. He has a great personality. And same thing with Keith. One thing thats impressed me the most with both of them is their success on the field, but theyre continuing to grind after that. Theyre still in the film room, in the weight room, on the field, busting it every day.
They also complement each other on the field: Bobo said Gurley is probably a better inside runner, while Marshalls strength is using his speed on the outside.
Hes running so fast sometimes he doesnt know how fast hes running he trips up, Bobo said with a smile. Weve gotta work on that a little bit. But both of those guys kind of give you a different dynamic.
So are Bobos fears allayed? He wont quite say that yet, pointing out theyre still freshmen and prone to freshman mistakes.
Still, there is a sense around the program that the tailback position is settling down. The drama is gone.
Im sure every running back has a plan before they come here, and its not their plan to get in trouble. It just kind of happens, Gurley said. Were just trying to do the right thing and hope none of that happens to us.
Marshall put it another way.
I feel weve moved on as a program, he said. Like I said, its very fortunate what happened to those guys. Its good guys who made mistakes here and there. But I feel the program has moved on.