Georgia Bulldogs: Keith Marshall

Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
It’s going to be a slow week.

The final Saturday in September won’t be a banner day for SEC football. With all due respect to matchups like Arkansas-Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech-Auburn and Vanderbilt-Kentucky, nothing there rises up to the level of true excitement. The games could very well be sellouts and the venues will likely be packed with tailgaters, but it’s not going to draw anyone’s national attention.

We’re going to make do, though. SEC diehards will always find a way. There are only 14 weeks of regular-season football, so you have to make every one count.

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got four weeks down and 10 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 5:

Sept. 27
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
Louisiana Tech at Auburn
Tennessee at Georgia
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
New Mexico State at LSU
Memphis at Ole Miss
Missouri at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Missouri at South Carolina

I might as well get a second office set up in Columbia. In playing our little road trip game here on the SEC blog, I chose stops at South Carolina in Week 1 and Week 2 of the season. And looking over the schedule for Sept. 27, I couldn’t in good conscience go anywhere else.

This game should be a good one, if for nothing other than the rematch angle after last season’s epic double-overtime bash. There was no better game to exemplify quarterback Connor Shaw's illustrious career than when injured, he came off the bench in the fourth quarter to help score 17 unanswered points to tie the score. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth-and-goal in the first overtime was a thing of beauty. His guts were on full display then, as was South Carolina’s defense, whose effort was somewhat lost in the comeback.

The names and faces will be very different this time, but the stakes at play could be much the same. The SEC East is wide open, and both Missouri and South Carolina have reasons to believe they could make it to Atlanta. This could turn out to be a swing game in determining who wins the division.

The Tigers will be a bit of a mystery entering Columbia with so few starters returning on both sides of the ball. But you have to like what you saw from Maty Mauk at quarterback last fall, and Markus Golden has the chance to be a star at defensive end. With games against South Dakota State, Toledo, UCF and Indiana to start the season, Missouri will have a chance to find itself without running the risk of losing a game.

Meanwhile, I have high expectations for South Carolina. Steve Spurrier should have a strong offensive line, a plethora of weapons at receiver and running back, and a veteran under center, even though Dylan Thompson has never been a full-time starter. The Gamecocks will have the edge against Missouri with the game at home, but this should be a hard-fought contest.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: Tennessee at Georgia

Missouri-South Carolina is a good pick, and as tempting as it would be to check out AT&T Stadium for the Arkansas-Texas A&M game, I’m going to stay in the East and head down to Athens for Georgia-Tennessee.

Talk about a good game from 2013 -- these two teams played an instant classic last fall. Tennessee scored twice in the fourth quarter to take a 31-24 lead, only to see Aaron Murray throw a touchdown pass with five seconds left to force overtime. In the extra session, Tennessee's Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled as he tried to stretch the ball over the end-zone pylon on the Vols’ first possession, which set up Georgia's Marshall Morgan for a game-winning 42-yard field goal.

Though Georgia escaped Rocky Top with a victory, it didn’t leave in one piece. The game was remembered more for the amount of devastating knee injuries suffered by the Bulldogs than the final outcome -- and nobody wants to see that again.

Instead, I want to see the combination of a healthy Todd Gurley and a healthy Keith Marshall tearing through SEC defenses. I want to see Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell back and making plays in the passing game. If the Bulldogs are at 100 percent, they make a strong case for the best team in the SEC East and maybe the whole conference.

With that said, I think this Tennessee team will be better than advertised. There will be plenty of question marks, including two glaring ones at quarterback and offensive line, but they’re a young, talented group with loads of potential. I want to see how this heralded recruiting class responds to its first SEC game. I want to see Marquez North because it doesn’t matter who’s throwing him the ball -- he can go get it. The Vols are looking for their first winning season since 2009 and would love nothing more than to steal one on the road.

And honestly, does it get any better than a traditional SEC rivalry between the hedges? It's our first stop there this fall and likely won't be our last.
There's a reason you eat breakfast every morning, people. It's the most important meal of the day, as it boosts your metabolism and gives you the added energy to get through the day.

Don't believe me? Well, then just take a look at Georgia running back signee Nick Chubb:

Yeah, that's just his normal, pre-race routine. The four-star prospect and ESPN 300 member was competing in this past week's Georgia state track meet when this awesome picture was snapped. What was supposed to be move to loosen up those legs and joints, turned into a freak show before our very eyes. Chubb had a time of 10.79 in the preliminaries of the Class AAAA 100-meter dash.

Chubb is supposed to have a 40-inch vertical, but that jump right there easily cleared 3.33 feet. I'm pretty sure he could have cleared me and my towering 5-foot-8 frame.

But there's a lot more Chubb could have done with that leap of ... freak:

1. Showing he could hurdle Jadeveon Clowney: Yeah, Clowney's lucky he got out of the SEC when he did, or he'd be subjected to many hurdles from Mr. Chubb. Clowney was a superior athlete when he was on the field, but a jump like that makes you wonder what would have happened when these two met. Chubb might not blow by Clowney, but who needs to run fast when you can just jump over your competition? SEC defensive ends/linebackers beware.

2. Showing Blake Griffin how it's really done: Remember when Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin tried to wow everyone at the NBA Dunk Contest by "jumping" over a car? Well, he didn't. He jumped over part of the hood, leaving so much to be desired in his championship-swindling dunk. Griffin could learn a lot from Chubb, who by my calculations, just cleared that Kia Griffin couldn't with ease.

3. Proving to be a valuable one-two punch with Gurley: We still don't know how healthy Keith Marshall will be, and I haven't seen any freaky photos of other freshman running back Sony Michel, so we're still looking for someone to consistently help Todd Gurley out. But let's forget about learning plays and development. Here's the perfect play for Georgia: Chubb takes the hand off, Gurley runs in front, as they get closer to the end zone, Chubb leaps onto Gurley's shoulders and jumps over the goal line. Best touchdown ever! And don't tell me Gurley couldn't handle it.

4. Showing he could be handy around the football facility: Need a light fixed, but don't have a ladder? Call Chubb. Need to paint the ceiling? Call Chubb. Need to get a ball out of the rafters? Call Chubb. Need someone to jump one of the walls at Foley Field right next to the football complex because Hutson Mason got a little careless with one of his throws? Call Chubb.

5. Bringing the country a real touchdown celebration: For some reason, when New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham dunks a football through goal posts after a touchdown, people get all giddy. OK, he can jump high and has long arms. But Chubb is bringing something way more exciting to the touchdown celebration: He's jumping through the goal posts. Get on Chubb's level, Jimmy!

SEC lunchtime links

May, 2, 2014
May 2
12:00
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Friday is finally here. Get a jump start on your weekend with Friday's lunch links.
  • Ranking the coaches: Nick Saban remains the No. 1 coach in college football, but what fellow SEC coach moved up to No. 2?
  • It has been 38 years since Alabama has had a quarterback go in the first round, but Richard Todd, the last one to do it, believes AJ McCarron will end the drought.
  • After a breakout performance in the spring game, Arkansas running back Korliss Marshall has created a dilemna by adding yet another option in the Hogs’ backfield.
  • With better execution, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee believes his team could’ve "named our score" in the BCS championship.
  • Running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are at the top of Georgia’s depth chart, but who is next in line?
  • Kentucky has yet to name a starting quarterback which means redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is still in the mix.
  • LSU quarterbacks Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings both improved this spring, but neither one stands out yet.
  • Missouri coach Gary Pinkel supports the SEC’s eight-game schedule and is looking forward to the potential rivalry with Arkansas that it sets up.
  • Texas A&M defensive end Gavin Stansbury was arrested on assault charges earlier this spring, but his lawyer said Thursday that it was ‘a horrible case of mistaken identity.’

Georgia spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
9:00
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Georgia Bulldogs:

1. Mason is ready: After sitting behind Aaron Murray for four years, Hutson Mason is now the guy at quarterback. It won’t be easy following a legend, but Mason is ready to do his thing in Athens. He had a good spring, is extremely confident, filled with moxie, knows the offense, can make plays on the fly, and has all the trust in his teammates.

2. Gurley tough: Georgia running back Todd Gurley has never been truly healthy with the Dawgs, but is playing through pain better than ever. His coaches pushed him to increase his toughness and improve his attitude this spring, and he did. He was bulldozing teammates during practice and the spring game and is motivated to play his best ball this fall.

3. Floyd and Johnson could be special: Linebacker Leonard Floyd could be Georgia’s best defensive player, while defensive lineman Toby Johnson could be primed for a breakout season. Floyd can do just about everything under the sun, while Johnson was a constant terror during Georgia’s spring game. Both needed to be doubleteamed this spring, and you should hear a lot more about these two this fall.

Three questions for the fall:

1. What's next for the secondary?: There’s no question that new DC Jeremy Pruitt’s biggest job will be fixing Georgia’s secondary. It showed similar inconsistencies this spring and the offense could have made things look really ugly through the air during the spring game if not for a few overthrows. Expect some of Georgia’s newcomers to get every shot at taking starting spots this fall.

2. Who will play at left guard?: Four of the five starting offensive line spots look to be set. Left guard, however, is unknown. There are a lot of combinations for the Dawgs and you could even see tackle Kolton Houston play there. Rising sophomore Brandon Kublanow playing at LG would keep Houston and John Theus at the tackle spots, but Mark Beard and Watts Dantzler could shake things up.

3. Will we see RB Keith Marshall this fall?: Marshall is running after his devastating ACL injury from last fall, but the coaches aren’t sure if he’ll be 100 percent this fall. Marshall hasn’t been cutting much, but he’s progressing. Still, with the severity of last year’s injury, Marshall could be limited this fall, or out completely.

One way-too-early prediction:

Midway through the season, Georgia will spend four straight games away from Athens. The trip starts at Missouri and squeezes in that annual game in Jacksonville, Fla., against rival Florida. Add a trip to Arkansas and Kentucky, and the Dawgs will be world travelers. Expect Georgia to split that road trip.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Try as he might, Georgia running back Todd Gurley just couldn’t find his legs.

The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.

“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley shook off some spring woes and plans on being a more vocal leader going forward.
“It was frustrating. Every time I tried to do a move or cut, somebody would just touch me and I’d just fall to the ground. I probably fell at least, like, 10 times in those first three practices.”

Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.

“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”

Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.

“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”

Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.

“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”

Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.

“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”

When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.

But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.

This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.

“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”

Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.

That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.

It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.

Resting won’t bring any of that.

“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”
It’s almost that time. Georgia is scheduled to open spring practice next week.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to the Bulldogs’ first-team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the upcoming practices.

Today’s prediction: Jordan Davis makes a move at tight end

Like the prediction we made about redshirt freshman tailback A.J. Turman on Monday, this is another one that seems like common sense.

[+] EnlargeJordan Davis
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJordan Davis will get the lion's share of the reps at tight end during spring and could be UGA's next star at the position.
The tailbacks are a bit depth-depleted because injuries will prevent Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall from performing at 100 percent and because signees Nick Chubb and Sony Michel aren’t on campus yet. That will provide Turman with a prime opportunity to prove himself.

Depth is an even bigger issue for Davis and the tight ends. All-SEC senior Arthur Lynch just exhausted his eligibility. Jay Rome is recovering from surgery, and coach Mark Richt said last week that he expects him to either miss all or most of spring. Signees Jeb Blazevich and Hunter Atkinson won’t arrive until summer.

If redshirt freshman Davis doesn’t make good use of what should be a ton of reps this spring, that will come off as an enormous disappointment.

The Bulldogs didn’t need him to play last season since Lynch and blocking tight end Hugh Williams were seniors, and Rome was also in the mix, although injuries cut his season short.

The depth chart looks completely different now, and Davis’ combination of speed, athleticism -- he was a distinguished hurdler in high school -- and a steady work ethic should begin to pay off immediately. If anything, he needs to learn to relax a bit, as tight ends coach John Lilly insisted last season that Davis often put too much pressure on himself.

Now is the time for him to settle into the routine of operating with the regulars on offense. Georgia’s coaches said last week that fullback Quayvon Hicks might take some snaps in an H-back role on offense, but otherwise Davis is the lone scholarship tight end available if Rome misses the entire spring.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Davis certainly looks the part of a pass-catching tight end with the frame to hold more size if necessary. Our prediction is that he develops the confidence this spring to accompany those physical tools, and that he will seize an on-field role for this fall.
It’s almost that time. Georgia is scheduled to open spring practice next week.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to the Bulldogs’ first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Bulldogs' upcoming practices.

Today’s prediction: A.J. Turman impresses at tailback

Let’s not kid ourselves. Turman, a redshirt freshman, isn’t competing for a starting job.

If Todd Gurley (989 rushing yards, 10 TDs last season, plus 441 receiving and six more scores) is healthy -- or even whatever approximation of full health he operated at for most of last season -- he will not only be Georgia’s starting tailback, he’ll rank among the better backs in the nation.

But Gurley isn’t completely healthy right now. Coach Mark Richt said so last week. Neither is Keith Marshall (246 yards in five games), who is returning from an ACL tear suffered midway through last season. Even if they were healthy, Georgia’s coaches know what those two can do. It would be fine to get them some work during spring practice, but this would be an excellent opportunity to give an unproven player such as Turman a chance to show off.

Considering the two star tailbacks’ situations, and that J.J. Green (second on the team with 384 yards, three TDs) has shifted to cornerback, the Bulldogs have few alternatives. Rising sophomore Brendan Douglas (345 yards, three TDs) is still in the mix, but this represents Turman’s first real shot to prove that he’s an SEC back after a hamstring injury during preseason camp relegated him to a redshirt season and scout-team work in 2013.

The bet here is that he turns some heads. After all, Gurley said late last season of Turman that “he’s always getting better from what I see. He always asks me questions like, ‘What do I do on this? What do I do on that?’ and he actually is really like a beast. Y’all will definitely see.”

Turman better start validating Gurley’s prediction now, because he might never get a better chance. Turman is almost guaranteed to get steady work this spring, but there are no guarantees beyond the next month of practices. Gurley and Marshall figure to be back around 100 percent when the Bulldogs open camp in August, and stud signees Sony Michel and Nick Chubb will be on campus by then, as well.

So there’s no way around it, Georgia will have a crowded backfield in the fall. A sluggish spring might mean that Turman becomes the forgotten man in that race. If he impresses -- and we believe he will -- the competition will be all the more interesting when the backfield arrives at full strength in the preseason.
So I was going back through the blog this morning and noticed our wildly popular video on the SEC East's top returning players and storylines in 2014, and I started thinking: Todd Gurley really hasn't shown his best stuff.

Yeah, just think about that comment for a second. Let it marinate, and before you Bulldogs fans start hurling insults my way, hear me out. For as great as he was as a freshman and as good as he was during an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, we really haven't seen the best of Gurley. And that has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIIf he's healthy, Todd Gurley could make a huge leap in 2014.
As a freshman still learning the ropes, he led all SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. That was when he was still kind of going through the motions. Before he missed a month with a nagging ankle injury last year, Gurley rushed for 450 yards and four touchdowns in four games. It should also be noted that he rushed for 73 yards on eight carries before suffering that ankle injury in the first half against LSU.

I think most of us can agree that if Gurley had been healthy all season, he would have pushed for the SEC rushing title and might have had a shot at the Heisman Trophy. Now, I'm not taking anything away from Tre Mason, Jeremy Hill, Mike Davis and T.J. Yeldon. They all had great seasons, but even though Gurley missed all of October, he finished the season with 989 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

He showed more explosion in his runs, he's still a bull of a runner and bringing him down with just one person is almost laughable. The fact of the matter is that a healthy Gurley is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and he could look his best in what could be his final year with the Bulldogs.

It might sound cliché, but Gurley just loves getting better. He's a laid-back guy who really does breathe football (and has a "Star Wars" cameo). He doesn't care about media attention. He knows the playbook, he knows how to handle pressure and he knows what it takes to succeed in this league. He's too seasoned not to soar in 2014.

He wants to win, and he wants to leave defenders battered and bruised along the way. Gurley has done that at 100 percent healthy and at 75 percent. His first game back after that nagging ankle injury last year? He rushed for 100 yards, registered 87 receiving yards and recorded two total touchdowns on 20 touches against Florida, which owned one of the nation's best defenses. In his final six games of the season (all after his injury), Gurley ran for 539 yards and six touchdowns. At 100 percent, Gurley would eat that for breakfast.

And he might have to carry more of the load in 2014. Keith Marshall is expected to come back this fall after suffering that nasty, season-ending knee injury just five games in, but there's no guarantee that he will be 100 percent. Sure, the Bulldogs have some talented freshmen coming in (ESPN 300 members Sony Michel and Nick Chubb), but don't expect them to get the sort of practice reps Gurley and Marshall had as freshmen. Add the fact that quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, and Gurley will have more responsibility this year.

Gurley isn't as flashy as Johnny Manziel, but he could have a similar impact for the Bulldogs this year. He's a different kind of face of the program than Jameis Winston, but he has the same sort of ability to carry this team.

The SEC has a knack for producing scary combinations of strength, size and speed at the running back position, but Gurley just looks like a different animal. He runs like a different animal. He fights like a different one, too.

Gurley will be a Heisman front-runner before the season rolls around, and if he can stay upright all year, don't be shocked if he hoists it in early December.
Continuing our run-up to Georgia's spring practice, this week we'll review the Bulldogs' five best recruiting classes of the last decade.

Today, we'll look at No. 4: The 2012 group that is still etching its legacy into Georgia history. We should revisit this ranking again in another couple years.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley became a star in the Bulldogs' backfield.
The stars: Keith Marshall was the initial class headliner, but Todd Gurley immediately shot to stardom when the star tailbacks arrived on campus. The duo combined for 2,144 rushing yards as freshmen and nearly helped the Bulldogs claim the 2012 SEC title. Both struggled with injuries last fall, but Gurley looks like he has the chance to become one of the greatest tailbacks in school history. Among the other headliners in the class, offensive tackle John Theus and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins also played early roles, although they have not yet reached their expected potential from recruiting. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is also in that boat, with his 2013 season -- his first as a starter -- displaying potential and not much consistency yet. Kicker Marshall Morgan bounced back from a shaky freshman season to enjoy one of the best seasons in school history. And Leonard Floyd -- who initially signed with Georgia in 2012 and re-signed with the following year after a season in prep school -- looks like a star pass-rusher in the making after leading the team with 6.5 sacks last fall.

The contributors: With most of the class still having two or three years of eligibility left, the list of contributors should grow substantially. Quayvon Hicks has started to develop as a productive fullback, while offensive lineman Mark Beard and punter Collin Barber have played a larger role than many players who are still waiting to break through. Defensive lineman John Taylor and cornerback Sheldon Dawson have made minor contributions thus far, but could be names to watch for the future.

The letdowns: There has not been much attrition from the class yet, which is a good sign. Tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith was dismissed last summer and is the lone departure to this point. Otherwise, the disappointment for this class might be that some of the headliners haven't become consistent stars … yet. Jenkins, Theus and Harvey-Clemons have been good players so far, but they need to make further progress to live up to their billing as recruits.

The results: This will be a big year for this class' ultimate place in UGA history. Some members -- Gurley and Marshall in particular -- helped Georgia come within an eyelash of playing for the 2012 BCS crown. It was a disappointing 2013 for the class and program because of injuries and disciplinary issues, so they need to bounce back a bit in 2014. This might be Gurley's final season on campus, but most members of this group still have plenty of time to make sure Gurley won't be the only breakout performer to come from their class.

Ultimate 300: SEC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014
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The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.

Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.

Georgia has another top-10 class lined up for national signing day, but its final ranking next week could rise or fall depending on how the Bulldogs finish within their own state -- particularly whether they land their top remaining target, Lorenzo Carter.

As it stands, the Bulldogs have commitments from two of the top six players from Georgia, but that's it among the Peach State's collection of elite prospects. Heavily recruited players such as linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (Clemson) were among those who checked out Georgia before committing elsewhere.

Mark Richt's staff still has a chance to finish on a strong note, however.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Carter
Miller Safrit/ESPNLorenzo Carter is the top remaining recruiting target for Georgia.
The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape to land five-star defensive end Carter (ESPN's No. 14 overall prospect and No. 3 player at his position). Other targets such as ESPN 300 prospect Wesley Green (No. 120 overall, No. 13 cornerback, uncommitted), Bryson Allen-Williams (No. 162 overall, No. 10 outside linebacker, committed to South Carolina) and Andrew Williams (No. 174 overall, No. 17 defensive end, uncommitted) are among those lurking as possible final members of the class.

Otherwise, this recruiting class -- one that could be slightly smaller than normal -- adequately addresses Georgia's immediate needs. Let's look at how Georgia addressed some of those positions:

Secondary: Georgia's weakest position segment last season could use some immediate help -- and it will get it in cornerbacks Shattle Fenteng (No. 3 overall prospect, top cornerback on ESPN's Junior College 50) and Malkom Parrish (No. 77 overall, No. 10 athlete). Georgia recently added three-star athlete Dominick Sanders at corner. Green -- who is scheduled to join Carter and others on a visit to Athens this weekend -- and three-star athletes T.J. Harrell and Tavon Ross remain as targets.

The possible shortcoming here is that safety was an inconsistent position for Georgia last season and the Bulldogs have only three-star prospect Kendall Gant lined up so far.

With Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended to open the season, senior Corey Moore, rising sophomore Quincy Mauger and oft-injured Tray Matthews might be the only early options, but keep an eye on Harrell and Ross between now and signing day.

Running back: With Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall entering their third seasons on campus, Georgia needed insurance policies at tailback.

The Bulldogs locked that up in a big way with the current headliners in this class, Sony Michel (No. 19 overall, No. 2 running back) and Nick Chubb (No. 63 overall, No. 7 running back). It will be interesting to see how Richt's staff juggles a glut of talented ball carriers just a year after injuries to Gurley and Marshall created depth problems.

Tight end: With Ty Flournoy-Smith getting kicked off the team last summer and Arthur Lynch exhausting his eligibility in the fall, Georgia had a need at tight end. Jeb Blazevich (No. 101 overall, No. 2 tight end/H) could become Georgia's next great pass-catching tight end thanks to an impressive combination of size (6-foot-5) and soft hands.

Offensive line: Replenishing the line of scrimmage is always a priority, and with Georgia losing starting guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, signing a top prospect such as Isaiah Wynn (No. 106 overall, No. 6 guard) will be particularly valuable. The Bulldogs are also set to sign four-star tackle Dyshon Sims and three-star prospects Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards.

Receiver: Georgia has plenty of bodies here for 2014, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, Jonathon Rumph and Michael Erdman will each be seniors and Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell will be fourth-year juniors.

The Bulldogs have secured commitments from ESPN 300 member Shakenneth Williams (No. 297 overall, No. 45 receiver) and three-star prospect Gilbert Johnson. They also are set to re-sign Rico Johnson, who failed to qualify after signing with the Bulldogs last February.

Defensive line/outside linebacker: Keep an eye on this group for the future. If Georgia lands Carter to go along with already-committed Lamont Gaillard (No. 55 overall, No. 4 defensive tackle), that could be the foundation for some outstanding defensive lines in the next couple of seasons.

The Bulldogs return almost everyone along the line from last season, so it is not a glaring immediate need. The 2014 line will be stocked with fourth-year players, though, so this is a good time to restock the depth charts for the future. They already have a commitment from the versatile Keyon Brown (No. 185 overall, No. 19 defensive end), with Carter and Williams potentially joining him. Like Brown, three-star outside linebacker Detric Dukes brings some versatility to the crop of commitments along the line.

Georgia's coaches never gave up on Allen-Williams even after his commitment to South Carolina in April. He insists he will still sign with the Gamecocks, but plans to visit Georgia with Carter and the others this weekend. Stay tuned.

Season report card: Georgia

January, 29, 2014
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An avalanche of injuries and an underperforming defense caused Georgia to slip from its top-five preseason ranking to an 8-5 finish. Let's review.

OFFENSE: B-plus
[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesInjuries took a toll on Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs in 2013.
Georgia's offense deserves a ‘With TG’ grade and a ‘Without TG’ grade because it was a completely different group when star tailback Todd Gurley was healthy. Even with Gurley struggling with a quad injury, the Bulldogs still scored 35 points against Clemson in the season opener. With Gurley out for a month at midseason, the offense sputtered a bit, and the Bulldogs lost twice more. But it's no coincidence that once he returned to the lineup, Georgia won four of its last five regular-season games and nearly pulled off a dramatic upset against eventual SEC champ Auburn. Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray was the glue to this group until suffering his own season-ending injury -- the unfortunate story of Georgia's season, as receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall all missed at least half of the season, as well. Despite the physical setbacks, Mike Bobo's offense still set multiple school records, including a new mark for total offense (484.2 ypg). We'll always wonder what might have been with this group, but it was still a pretty good season.

DEFENSE: D
Georgia fans expected this to be a rebuilding year on defense after losing 12 key contributors off the previous season's defense. But 2013 was a more painful transition than most expected. The Bulldogs gave up some huge point and yardage totals early in the season, and while they did improve a bit as the season progressed, they were still far too inconsistent. They finished the season ranked eighth in the SEC in total defense (375.5 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring (29 ppg) -- totals that simply weren't good enough for the Bulldogs to live up to their preseason billing once their high-powered offense began to slow down with the injuries. After the season, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and all three defensive assistants left the staff, with former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt taking over. Georgia returns almost everyone from its 2013 defense, so Pruitt could be set up to enjoy early success.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D
If Marshall Morgan hadn't been one of the best kickers in the nation, this grade might have been even lower. However, Morgan was absurdly good, converting 22 of 24 field goals (including 7-for-8 from 40 yards or more) and all 47 PATs. Otherwise, Georgia's special teams play was a comedy of errors: blocked punts, fumbled snaps, kick returns allowed for touchdowns. Some Bulldogs fans have clamored for Mark Richt to dedicate an assistant coach specifically to improve in this area, but he has thus far resisted that idea. Nonetheless, there wasn't much to like on special teams aside from the kicker making huge strides as a sophomore.

OVERALL: C
Prior to the season, no Georgia fan would have been pleased to learn that the Bulldogs would finish the season with five losses. After nearly playing for a BCS title and returning most everyone on offense from 2012, this was a team expected to at least contend for the SEC East title. It's only fair to cut the Bulldogs a bit of slack (check out what happened at Florida after injuries hit the roster in a similar fashion) for remaining a competitive club despite the physical setbacks. But 8-5 is simply not very good for this program, and it could have been a much better season.

Past grades:
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

Backfield depth could be new issue

December, 27, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's coaches hesitate to publicly look beyond their Jan. 1 meeting with Nebraska, but they should experience an entirely new problem within the next few months.

For the first time in years -- maybe as far back as 2006, when a loaded backfield prompted coach Mark Richt to redshirt future All-American Knowshon Moreno -- Georgia could actually have too many good tailbacks to take full advantage of everyone's abilities.

[+] EnlargeDouglas
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brendan Douglas averaged 4.3 yards per rush this season for Georgia.
“There's some great backs here, and it's good to have that many backs that you can roll in there with the different kind of running styles they have,” said Brendan Douglas, who rushed for 337 yards this season as a freshman. “It'll be interesting next year, plus we're getting those two good backs coming in here and we'll just have to see what happens when they get here.”

Those two good backs -- ESPN 300 prospects Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among the top eight prospects at the position -- have committed to sign with Georgia in February. Presumably they will join a backfield that already includes sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and freshmen Douglas, J.J. Green and A.J. Turman.

All-SEC honoree Gurley and Marshall were obviously the group's leaders after rushing for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2012, but the freshmen entered this season as complete unknowns.

When Ken Malcome opted to transfer after the 2012 season, Georgia's coaches knew they would have to play at least two of the newcomers behind the two returning stars. They couldn't have expected, however, that injuries to Gurley and Marshall would cause them to rely so heavily on Green and Douglas.

“Douglas and Green we were probably going to have to play because of the depth issue,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We were getting those guys ready to play special teams. They probably might not have gotten as many snaps at running back.”

There was a time where the coaches considered playing Turman, as well, but they were able to preserve his redshirt by sticking with Douglas and Green until Gurley returned from a three-game absence to play against Florida on Nov. 2.

Gurley recently described Turman as “a beast” and predicted that he will also make an impact once he wins an opportunity to contribute.

“People know their roles,” Gurley said. “I'm pretty sure guys, just like Turman, he would have loved to have come in and played. Sometimes you've got to know your role and if that's redshirting, then it's getting redshirted. And if not, then just try to do your best to get on the field or keep getting better.”

That's what Green and Douglas accomplished as freshmen, establishing themselves as potentially productive SEC tailbacks should they remain at the position. Both players possess the ability to play elsewhere -- Green at receiver or cornerback and Douglas at fullback -- and said they are willing to play wherever needed, although they consider themselves tailbacks first.

Asked recently about Green, Richt said the coaches also view him as a running back, although his role might someday expand to include some receiving duties, as well. So it appears that even with Michel and Chubb set to join the roster in 2014, the Bulldogs could soon possess tailback depth that will rank among the best in the conference. And with Gurley and Marshall both entering their junior seasons -- meaning they will be eligible to enter the NFL draft after next fall -- now is a good time to reload.

“I don’t know if you can ever have enough backs, and certainly injury is an issue,” Richt said. “Guys that are talented enough to possibly have a three-year career instead of a four-year career, you’ve got to plan for all of those things. I don’t know what decisions guys will make down the road, but certainly we’ve got some very talented backs that will have some decisions to make, as well. That’s all part of the reason to continue to recruit great players.”

Michel and Chubb have certainly earned that distinction within recruiting circles, so this could legitimately become Georgia's most talented backfield since the 2006 bunch that included future NFL players Moreno, Danny Ware, Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown.

Green said he, Douglas and Turman will show the newcomers the ropes just like Marshall and Gurley did, but predicted that a fierce competition for playing time will await the freshmen once they arrive on campus.

“Competing at practice, who wants it more? Working out, who wants it more? That's why you have an offseason. Who's going to want it more?” said Green, who is second on the team with 365 rushing yards. “Who's going to step in there and learn the playbook? That's all it's going to take: who wants it more?

“You watch Keith, you watch Todd. You're going to want to be just like them. You're going to try to ball out.”

Turnover common for Ball, McClendon

December, 26, 2013
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Pardon Bryan McClendon if he took a pessimistic approach before the fall even arrived, but his five seasons as Georgia's running backs coach have permanently ingrained that attitude into his coaching outlook.

McClendon, who each season has juggled his lineups because of an assortment of injuries and off-the-field issues, predicted to All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley before the season that his sophomore year would not be all breakaway touchdown runs and soaring dives into the end zone. Those moments came, too, but McClendon's prediction proved to be correct when Gurley injured himself in the opener against Clemson and later missed three-and-a-half games with an ankle injury sustained against LSU.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley, who has rushed for 903 yards this season, has been hobbled by an ankle injury this season.
“That's something that we've known and we talked about before the year: it's going to be something,” McClendon said. “We didn't know what it was going to be, but it's going to be something -- just by the position and the style of play that he plays. But I do know that he probably won't be 100 percent [again] until after the year.”

It's always been something for McClendon's players -- and for fellow UGA assistant Tony Ball's receivers, as well -- but the coaches and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have proven over time that they are capable of adjusting to the personnel available on a given week.

They've certainly had more than enough practice in that capacity this season.

Gurley and Keith Marshall both missed multiple games at tailback, while freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas also struggled with minor ailments at points. And Ball's wideout group lost Malcolm Mitchell to a torn ACL on the second possession of the season, Justin Scott-Wesley to an ACL at midseason and Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph for multiple games at points.

The results with a decimated lineup weren't always pretty -- the Bulldogs committed four turnovers in a midseason loss to Missouri and generated just 221 yards of offense in the following week's loss to Vanderbilt -- but Bobo and company found a way to keep Georgia on pace to break the school's scoring record. The Bulldogs are averaging 38.2 ppg this season, just ahead of their record-setting 37.8-ppg average from 2012.

“There was an adjustment period there that we had to go through,” Bobo said. “That Missouri game, we pretty much stayed aggressive, but we kind of turned the ball over a little bit [and had] some timing issues. We tried to slow it a little bit down in the Vanderbilt game and didn't have the results that way, either, and had to go back to the drawing board and the guys responded and answered and came back and played well the rest of the year.”

That they did. Georgia averaged 45.8 ppg over the final four games, even without key players like Marshall, Mitchell, Scott-Wesley and senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who tore his ACL in the home finale against Kentucky. Even with Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan playing bigger roles at receiver and with the freshmen filling in for Gurley and Marshall in the backfield at midseason, the Bulldogs regularly got production out of less heralded players.

“A lot of people went down and kids had to step up and prove they can play. Even a lot of freshmen had to step up and play,” Douglas said. “I just give credit to the coaches for having them ready to go and Coach B-Mac having me and J.J. ready to roll in whenever we needed to.”

McClendon turned 30 earlier this month, but since Mark Richt promoted him from his post as a graduate assistant in 2009, he has dealt with as much roster turnover as a considerably older coach.

It was stressful, McClendon admitted, but it also expedited his development within the profession.

“You learn by hard times,” McClendon said. “You learn by adversity, you learn by when things are not going just peachy. And obviously that's been the case, and I think I've grown tremendously from it.”

His boss agrees.

Richt saw Green rush for 129 yards in an overtime win against Tennessee and witnessed Douglas post 113 yards of offense against Missouri even when they weren't ready to play leading roles just yet. He saw 10 different wideouts make catches over the course of the season, with seven of them finishing with at least 89 yards in a game this fall.

Injuries are of course part of the game, but Georgia's receivers and running backs have dealt with more than their share over the last couple of seasons – and Richt is proud of the way his assistants have coped with those situations.

“[Ball] coaches them all the same and he does a great job of trying to crosstrain players when they're ready for it to make sure if you do have an injury … you've got guys that have got to be moving around. He did a great job,” Richt said. “And McClendon did, too. Bryan, I think he's blossomed into one heck of a coach.

“I just don't like bragging too much about these guys because everybody wants to try to snag them,” Richt chuckled. “So we don't want that to happen.”

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