ATHENS - It’s not that anybody missed on Todd Gurley. It’s not that anybody didn’t know he would be good.
It’s just that nobody knew he would be this great.
They didn’t know it would happen this quickly.
Thirty-three years ago, Herschel Walker arrived at Georgia after a recruiting saga that was hyped beyond belief. Thirty-two years later, Gurley wasn’t even the highest-rated tailback in Georgia’s signing class.
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Now he’s a Heisman candidate. Now he has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of the 16 games he has played. Now many analysts consider him the best running back in college football.
“I don’t think anybody saw this,” said Jessie Nunery, the sports editor of the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram, who covered Gurley in high school.
Gurley’s story is not a case of being completely overlooked. He was, after all, rated among the top 100 overall players in the 2012 class. It’s also not a case of getting bigger and stronger. It was apparent from the day he arrived at Georgia that the Bulldogs had lucked into an elite player.
Mike Bobo, who is Georgia’s offensive coordinator, didn’t see Gurley in person in high school because he wasn’t Gurley’s main recruiter; that was running backs coach Bryan McClendon. So the first time Bobo ever saw the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Gurley rush the ball in person was the first preseason practice in pads last year. This one can be great, he realized.
“When he came out there in pads, I was like, ‘This guy is pretty big,’ ” Bobo said. “He’s a special back.”
So why didn’t more people realize that?
Gurley cites geography. Tarboro was about an hour-and-a-half from Raleigh.
“I was small-town, man,” Gurley said. “I wasn’t in a major city. Small town, 2A football, there wasn’t anybody who had really come out of there. There’s nothing out there, really.”
Even in this day and age, that still matters, according to recruiting analysts, because it limited the ability of people to see him in person. They had to rely on films and camps -- which Gurley mostly spurned. He recalled attending only two, one at Duke and one sponsored by Nike.
It was Keith Marshall, another tailback from North Carolina, who was a consensus five-star player and whose commitment to Georgia was more heralded. Gurley committed a month later to some fanfare but much less than Marshall.
The 247Composite, which culls all the major ratings, had Gurley as the seventh-best rated running back in the 2012 signing class, the fifth-best player in the state of North Carolina and the 74th-best overall player in the country.
Still, a few analysts did think Gurley deserved to be ranked higher, including Rusty Mansell of 247Sports.com.
“Did I think he was the No. 1 running back in the country? No I didn’t. But I knew he was pretty damn good,” Mansell said.
It also didn’t help Gurley’s exposure that he didn’t settle in as Tarboro’s starting tailback until his junior season, after playing a lot on defense. Tarboro has been a very successful program, making the state championship game the year before Gurley took over as the starter. But that’s when Gurley took off.
“You could see physically looking at him that he filled that uniform a little better than anybody else,” Nunery said.
As a senior, Gurley led Tarboro to a third straight state title with 242 yards and a touchdown, in a game at N.C. State. And they needed all of it because they won it by three points.
“I thought I was watching a video game,” Nunery said. “He made one or two quick cuts, and he was gone.”
That doesn’t mean everyone in Tarboro and the surrounding area is now saying they knew there was a Heisman candidate on the way to Athens. Nunery said people there are as surprised as people in Athens.
But that very first preseason scrimmage in August of 2012 is when it became apparent something was up. Then-senior safety Shawn Williams invoked Trent Richardson, after watching Gurley bounce off a crowded line, go outside and gain 40 yards. Then-senior receiver Marlon Brown gushed, “Todd Gurley had some beat runs out there. I was like, Is that a freshman out there?”
A few days into preseason practice in 2012, Georgia coaches privately commented to people close to the program that they knew they had something special. At that point, it was just a matter of unleashing him on college football.
“We thought he was a good player, a strong running back,” Bobo said. “But I don’t think you ever know until they get here. There’s a lot of factors that determine when a kid takes off, or how he takes off.”
Bobo paused a moment.
“No,” he said. “I could never imagine.”