ATHENS — As the hype builds around Georgia freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, one of their teammates has settled on a nickname for the duo.
“Gurshall, that’s what I call them,” wide receiver Tavarres King said.
As King excitedly enunciates it, the combination of the first syllable of Gurley and the second syllable of Marshall rhymes with … Herschel.
The wildly premature suggestion that the Gurley-Marshall tandem is somehow reminiscent of Herschel Walker, the greatest Georgia tailback, reflects the excitement the freshmen have stirred.
Tailback is a position that commands attention, good or bad. In the previous two seasons, Georgia tailbacks were known more for the bad — arrests, suspensions, dismissals, injuries. With Gurshall, things seem good again at the position.
“I went to the dining hall one day, and they started clapping,” Marshall said.
Another example of their celebrity: “Sat next to Todd Gurley at Zaxby’s,” a UGA student tweeted this week. “What are you doing with your life?”
Four games into their college careers, Gurley and Marshall have combined to rush for 670 yards and score 10 touchdowns. Gurley, the starter, leads the SEC in rushing (101.5 yards per game), scoring (10.5 points per game) and all-purpose yards (164.2 per game). His roommate and running mate, Marshall, has added 66 rushing yards per game.
In last week’s win over Vanderbilt, the duo combined for 212 rushing yards (Gurley 130, Marshall 82) and four touchdowns (two apiece). Each had a stirring TD run — Marshall a 52-yarder and Gurley a 29-yarder that featured several broken tackles and a safety stiff-armed to the ground.
“Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” King said of Gurley’s run. “Well, not live. I saw Herschel do something like that [on tape].
“When [Gurley] made that run, in my head, I heard Munson: ‘My God, a freshman!’” said King, referring to legendary UGA broadcaster Larry Munson’s famous call of Walker’s debut against Tennessee in 1980.
Gurley and Marshall, who grew up 70 miles apart in North Carolina and became friends after meeting at a high school track meet, are aware of their growing celebrity but seem unfazed by it.
“You have people come up to you and everything,” Gurley said, “but I’m still taking it the same.”
“They don’t get caught up in it, and probably the best thing as a teammate is knowing they don’t hold themselves so highly,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “They just show up everyday to work.”
“They are mature beyond their years,” receiver Michael Bennett said. “Eighteen years old and all this attention coming on them — they’re handling it really well.”
They arrived in Athens after several troubled seasons for the tailback position; Caleb King, Washaun Ealey, Carlton Thomas and Isaiah Crowell drew suspensions for various transgressions and eventually left the team.
“In the past, it’s kind of been a never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get type of thing,” Robinson said. “When you have guys of high character that show up everyday to work, you can trust them and you don’t get as frustrated with them when things don’t go well. I guess, when things are different, you can kind of pinpoint that maybe that’s why we weren’t having the production — behavior issues and things like that. We don’t have that anymore, and this team is a lot better because of it.”
Running backs coach Bryan McClendon is keeping an eye on how Gurley and Marshall handle the adulation that comes with success, although he isn’t worried.
“I’m a part of the process of keeping them humble,” McClendon said. “But they come from a great family, both of those guys. They’re very humble people to begin with, so that’s not something you foresee being an issue at all.”
On the field, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound Gurley is a blend of power and speed, while the 5-11, 216-pound Marshall is a former high school sprint champion who once competed against Gurley in the 100-meter dash. “I won,” Marshall said.
“Those two guys are thunder [Gurley] and lightning [Marshall],” King said.
Off the field, Gurley is affectionately described as “goofy” by several teammates and does not disagree. “I just like to have some fun, pick everybody up,” Gurley said. “I probably am a little goofy.” Marshall is described as the quieter of the two.
“They both act like little kids. They’re really cheerful, messing around the locker room, joking,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I don’t see them as guys who are going to let their fame or their success get to their heads too much and think they’re all that.”
– Tim Tucker