ATHENS – Seeing how he’s now considered a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel would seem a shoo-in for SEC Freshman of the Year. But the argument over who might be the best freshman running back in the league remains a good one that might not be settled until after Saturday’s SEC Championship game.
Both Alabama and Georgia received all they could have hoped for from their first-year backs. The Bulldogs have been led all season by Todd Gurley, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound true freshman from Tarboro, N.C. Gurley became the first UGA true freshman since Herschel Walker in 1980 to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season when he broke the barrier two weeks ago. He enters the SEC title game with 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return.
T.J. Yeldon hasn’t been quite as productive for the Crimson Tide but he hasn’t had to be. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound tailback from Daphne, Ala., comes into the weekend with 847 yards and 10 touchdowns. But while Gurley is Georgia’s primary back, Yeldon remains a backup for junior starter Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for 1,001 yards and 14 touchdowns. Yeldon has 6.6 yards-per-carry average to Gurley’s 6.5.
Of course, Gurley also has an understudy, but his is also a true freshman. Keith Marshall has averaged 6.7 yards a carry while rushing for 720 yards and eight TDs while alternating with Gurley.
Georgia’s duo has the full attention of the Crimson Tide.
“They run the ball extremely well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Todd has obviously played the most, but both of those guys are really good players. And they have a good offensive line. That creates a tremendous amount of balance with them with a good quarterback (in Aaron Murray) who is able to complete a high percentage of his passes.”
Said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosely: “We haven’t really faced a team that has a one-two punch like that.”
Other than in Alabama practice.
Lacy and Yeldon have provided the same sort of inside-outside combination Georgia has in Gurley and Marshall. Along with third-string tailback Kenyan Drake — a freshman from Powder Springs who has run for 273 yards and two touchdowns in mop-up duty — the Crimson Tide is averaging 5.4 yards per carry as a team. Texas A&M is the only SEC team getting more per rush (5.6), while Georgia is the only other league team averaging 5 or better (5.0).
“(Bama’s offense is) designed to put the ball in their hands and their line really fires off well,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “You don’t see a lot of missed assignments. You see a hat on a hat. That means the running back finds the hole and is able to get to that second level a lot faster than some other teams we’ve maybe played in the past. “Both of those backs are able to hit it up and spin and turn for those extra yards that a lot of other backs that we’ve faced to this point haven’t been able to do.”
If there is anything that Georgia running backs have done better than Alabama, it is what coaches call the “home run.” The Bulldogs’ duo of Gurley and Marshall has ripped off 18 runs of 20 or more yards. Included in that total are 10 jaunts of 30 or more yards and eight of more than 40. Marshall has scoring runs of 75, 72, 62 and 52 yards while Gurley has recorded runs of 55, 51, 49 and 44 yards.
“That may be more than we’ve had in the last five years combined,” Georgia coach Mark said.
Both Gurley and Marshall came to Georgia with nationally-rated track speed. But that’s not what they credit for their long-distance success.
“It’s the line, man, and the fullbacks and the receivers out there blocking,” Gurley said. “It’s our job to finish off runs when we get into the secondary. But all those long runs you’ve seen, that’s the line and our fullbacks giving their effort.”
Alabama’s backs have been nearly as explosive. The Tide has gotten a 73-yard run from Lacy, a 43-yarder from Yeldon and several others of more than 30 yards.
“They are very similar,” Georgia senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “Gurley is a power back but he can also break away from people just like Lacy. For us, Keith Marshall reminds me of their No. 4, Yeldon. They both, when they find a hole, no one catches them. I think they’re very similar.”
That is part of the reason both offenses have been so effective. Both teams utilize pro-style offenses that are led by highly-efficient quarterbacks. Murray leads the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 177.15. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron is second at 176.26. The teams average 38 and 39 points per game, respectively.
“You got to be able to run the ball good enough to make your play-action pass worth it,” Richt said. “You have to be able to reduce some yardage on first or second downs. … We are doing a lot of the things you need to do.”
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