ATHENS, Ga. — Walking across the concrete-and-steel causeway that winds from Sanford Stadium’s imposing exterior to its suite and press level, a vendor could be heard coming up with creative ways to sell Georgia’s spring game program: "Future champions roster, five dollars! Future champions roster, five dollars!"
The magazine-hawking tactic served to reinforce the brand of optimism that compounds upon itself at this time of year in college football, especially on this day: 44 FBS teams held their spring games on Saturday, making it unofficial "National Spring Game Day (Or Something Like That)" around the country. Optimism is nothing new around this time of year; Mark Richt should know.
"It reminds me back when I played quarterback back in my day. I had this great game, spring game, but I probably wasn’t having that great of a spring," the former Miami Hurricanes quarterback, who is entering his 14th season at the helm in Athens, said. "So I’m thinking, ‘Shoot, I had a good spring game so I’m gonna be the man.’ Well, turns out Jim Kelly was the man. And I think I can finally admit that Coach (Howard) Schnellenberger was probably right. As hard as it was hard for me and my mom to believe that was the truth."
Everything should be taken with a grain of salt in spring.
It’s going to be a long, winding road to college football’s new four-team playoff, and as much as the Southeastern Conference’s best teams figure to factor into the final field, there’s plenty of variables up in the air. Georgia’s first order of business will be to reestablish itself in that nationally-focused conversation following an injury-plagued and disappointing five-loss campaign. Just like every other program, that requires answering personnel questions.
There are significant losses, notably record-breaking quarterback Aaron Murray, dismissed safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who accepted a lucrative deal to coach under new Louisville headman, Bobby Petrino. The primary conversation surrounding the program remains the QB depth chart, but aside from Murray and a few other productive seniors (tight end Arthur Lynch, defensive end Garrison Smith), there is the potential for addition by subtraction: Georgia finished just 79th in scoring defense last season under Grantham, so bringing in Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator of the No. 1 defense nationally in 2013 at Florida State, where he won his third straight BCS Championship, projects to be a step forward for the Bulldogs. And returning nine starters on defense, plus any and all talent from four consecutive top-15 recruiting classes, doesn’t hurt.
But all that being said, Georgia’s own brand of optimism begins in the backfield.
Junior Todd Gurley is the most dominant returning running back in the country when healthy. He has has accounted for 2,374 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in his first two seasons, all while missing three games and parts of others — not to mention more than 500 yards and six scores in the receiving department. The Tarboro, N.C., native is a physically imposing (and punishing) presence at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, and his return for what could be a final season in Athens gives Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo a reliable Option A while breaking in first-year starting quarterback Hutson Mason — a former three-star recruit who played relatively well after Murray with a season-ending ACL injury last season and looks to bring a bit more tempo to the Bulldogs’ attack. Mason finished 18-of-27 for 241 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
But first and foremost, they’ve got to keep Gurley on the field.
Richt understands if Gurley is a bit bored by spring practice. When a standout college football player puts up 100-yard games against the likes of Clemson, Alabama, Florida (twice) and Auburn in his first two seasons, there isn’t the same type of adrenaline rush when participating in Mat Drills. All the same, the coach pulled his best player aside earlier this spring.
"As he started out, I didn’t know: Was he full speed? Was he not? I even made a comment that I didn’t even know if he was gonna practice at one of our press conferences," Richt said of Gurley’s lingering injury problem. "After enough practice, I felt like he was — you might have seen a play or two where you’re saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s healthy and I need to see more effort.’ It wasn’t awful, but when you’re Todd Gurley, people tend to notice what you do. And you can’t hide.
" … I’m not making excuses for the guy, but when you’re kind of a big-game competitor kinda guy and been through a year or two, spring ball practice doesn’t get him too excited, quite frankly. He’s like, ‘Let’s get to Clemson. Let’s play ball.’ But even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to be great."
Gurley evidently took the talk to heart. Richt said that he saw more effort throughout the past week of practice, and even though he said the running game was just "decent" during the G-Day game, the primary target of his postgame correction was the not-so-healthy offensive line. Gurley received just nine touches on the day, but there were hints of the similar explosive play-making ability college football has come to recognize: he accounted for 70 total yards and one score in a winning effort.
"I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna go hard. I’m gonna go 100 percent," Gurley said, while adding that he’s not yet back to full strength. "I’m not just gonna go out there and go 50 percent, because if you go 50 percent there’s somebody that’s going 100 percent trying to tackle you. That’s how you get hurt. I’m not gonna go 50 percent."
Todd Gurley has accounted for 2,374 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns in his first two seasons in Athens.
By the time the fall rolls around, he’ll need to be constant presence behind Mason. Even if he’s expected to have some company in that backfield.
Behind the recruiting efforts of running backs coach Bryan McClendon, who was named 2014 National Recruiter of the Year by multiple recruiting-based publications, the Bulldogs are stockpiling. College football is still locked in an arms race — it’s a quarterbacks’ game after all — but Georgia, along with Alabama and a select few other national powers, finds itself at the forefront of the sport’s "legs race," the constant influx of top-rated running backs that keep programs churning out yards on the ground.
In the past four recruiting cycles, McClendon has signed five top-20 running backs.
Gurley and former No. 1 running back recruits Keith Marshall and Isaiah Crowell each saw significant time on the field during their freshman and/or sophomore seasons (Crowell was dismissed after rushing for 850 yards and five scores in 2011), a revolving door that brings up the question: Just how dominant would the Bulldogs have been if Crowell joined the "Please Don’t Call Us Gurshall" duo the past two years? Adding Sony Michel, the No. 2-rated back in the most recent class, and four-star Nick Chubb will only bolster the ranks come summer. Over the past four classes, only Alabama boasts more top-20 running back signees (per Scout):
Even if Marshall, who is recovering from an ACL injury he suffered last season (he did not play in the spring game, though he has participated in spring practice), redshirts this upcoming season, Georgia seems confident that it’ll have enough legs to shoulder the workload.
"I think you look at the guys you have behind (Todd) and a few of the guys coming in, and Coach BMac (McClendon) and Coach Bobo have a plan every single week, the amount of reps or the rotation they’re gonna do," Mason said. "So all Todd has to do is tap is helmet or something, and they’ll put somebody fresh on."
Added senior receiver Chris Conley: "This kind of offense, it’s a pro-style offense, it’s set up from run to pass first. When you have running backs who can be explosive between the tackles and running backs who can get on the outside, it causes the defense and the secondary to play honest. … Those (other guys), there’s not that much of a drop off, as hard as it is to believe that. Todd is a great player, but guys behind him are pushing him."
Georgia has not finished higher than 43rd nationally in rushing since its 2007 season with Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown, but that’s a bit of a misnomer given the quarterback production the program received from Murray and Matt Stafford. Whether Mason can put up similar numbers remains to be seen, but at various times over the past few seasons, the Bulldogs have been able to impose their will on the ground — never more so than when Marshall and especially Gurley are at full strength.
If and when this Georgia program reaches that point this offseason, that 100-percent mark, before the opener against Clemson, then there’s going to be plenty of room for optimism in Athens, too.