ATHENS, Ga. - As the past two seasons of Georgia football have reflected, the only player who can stop tailback Todd Gurley is Gurley himself.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound junior from Tarboro, N.C., made a dazzling debut in 2012, rushing for 1,385 yards on a team that won 12 games and nearly won the Southeastern Conference title. He missed three games last season and significant chunks of three others yet still rushed for 989 yards while adding 441 as a receiver out of the backfield.
Gurley has a career average of 6.1 yards per carry.
"When he's healthy, he's a force and a man to be reckoned with," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "There is no doubt about that."
When he's healthy.
Gurley's first carry last season was a 75-yard touchdown run at Clemson, but he injured his thigh on the play. The thigh nagged him the next two games against South Carolina and North Texas, when he totaled 223 yards, and a more severe setback occurred against LSU when he sprained his ankle after rushing for 73 yards on eight carries.
He missed all three October games before making an instant splash against Florida, catching a short Aaron Murray pass over the middle and turning it into a 73-yard touchdown. That score put the Bulldogs up 14-0 in their eventual 23-20 win, but it also revealed Gurley's battle to get back to speed from a stamina standpoint.
"After my ankle injury, it got to where I couldn't get conditioned," Gurley said. "I was getting nauseous. When I caught that touchdown pass against Florida, my ankle started hurting about halfway through. I was like, 'Man, this is going to be a long day.' The only other time I had gotten nauseous like that was my very first game against Buffalo.
"I scored three touchdowns that game and had a 100-yard kickoff return. My teammates came and tackled me and started smacking me on the head, and I couldn't pick my head up. They had to take me back to the locker room and get me an IV."
Keeping Gurley healthy and conditioned has been a huge focus the past several months, and he said he is not going into this season thinking about last year's setbacks.
"I don't play like that," Gurley said. "Even when I came back last year, I was still doing crazy stuff. There were days this summer when it was so hot at three o'clock, but I was running full speed and training my body to go where it couldn't go any more.
"My goal has been to train hard every day to be the best I can be, so when the game comes, it's all natural and I can just take care of business."
Though he has not publicly announced this will be his final collegiate season, Gurley is expected to join quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver A.J. Green as recent Georgia offensive standouts who played just three years in Athens. Gurley even has discussed giving it his all not only for the Bulldogs but to make himself as marketable as possible, given the decline of tailback star power at draft time.
Georgia will welcome the return of Keith Marshall to the backfield following ACL surgery and has Brendan Douglas along with the touted freshman tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but it's Gurley who is being mentioned as the SEC's top Heisman Trophy candidate.
"It's been a journey," Gurley said. "It's hard to believe I'm a junior now, but it's been a lot of fun. Last year was a little frustrating after my freshman year had been so fun. We were so close two years ago to winning the national championship, but this whole experience has opened up so many doors as far as meeting so many people."
Said Richt: "I think we can win even if he wasn't there every single game, but we're better with him, I can promise you that. In any given game, he can be the difference."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.