Keith Marshall of Millbrook, the top-ranked high school running back in the country, already had announced he was going to the University of Georgia when Tarboro High runner Todd Gurley, the 2012 North Carolina high school football player of the year, announced he was joining the Bulldogs, too.
They knew they would compete for playing time as Georgia’s featured running backs, but they were already friends and relished the challenge.
The North Carolina products have emerged as a remarkable running tandem while leading the Bulldogs to a 6-1 record.
“I haven’t seen this much excitement about a North Carolina running back at Georgia since Tim Worley of Lumberton arrived in 1985,” said Tony Barnhart of CBS Sports.
“Gurley and Marshall – or Gurshall (rhymes with Herschel) – are now Georgia’s version of Thunder and Lightning. Both have speed. Both have power and neither is intimidated by his surroundings. And in the SEC, that’s important.”
Marshall said the start has been everything he hoped for when he dreamed of playing for the Bulldogs.
“It has been better than anything I could have imagined,” Marshall said last week.
“I never expected it to be like this,” Gurley echoed. “It’s better than I thought it could be.”
The two former N.C. High School Athletic Association track champions share Georgia’s primary ball-carrying duties.
Gurley (6-1, 218) has 622 yards rushing and has scored nine touchdowns. He averages 88.9 yards per game and 6.7 yards per rush. He has gained 100 yards or more in four of seven games.
Marshall (5-11, 215 pounds) has 488 yards and five touchdowns. He is averaging 69.7 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry. He has had a pair of 100-yard rushing games, including 164 yards against Tennessee.
“One runner couldn’t do it in our offense, especially against SEC defenses,” Marshall said. “I knew you had to have at least two running backs.”
And Marshall knew he wanted Gurley for a teammate.
They became friends after meeting at the U.S. World Youth Trials track meet at Myrtle Beach, S.C., the summer before their senior seasons. Marshall won the 100 meters and Gurley won the 110-meter hurdles to qualify for the IAAF World Youth Championships in Lille, France.
They stayed in touch even though Gurley ran in France and Marshall missed the trip because of a passport issue.
They talked about their recruiting trips, the schools they liked and the schools they marked off their lists as potential choices.
Georgia was near the top of Marshall’s list since middle school. His admiration of former Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno (2007-2008) and the allure of playing in the SEC were factors in his picking the Bulldogs over Clemson in December. The only in-state school he considered was North Carolina and that interest disappeared when coach Butch Davis was fired.
Among the first people informed of Marshall’s final decision was Gurley.
“We talked all the time and he knew every step in my process,” Marshall said.
From the moment Marshall made his decision, he said he became “Todd’s biggest recruiter. I wanted him here, too.”
Marshall envisioned a combination similar to Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram, who combined for 1,575 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2010.
Gurley liked the idea of playing with Marshall, but was determined to make his own choice.
“I didn’t want to allow one other person to determine my decision,” Gurley said. “I wanted to do what was best for me.”
He also chose Georgia over Clemson. He liked Clemson a lot, but loved Georgia.
“The atmosphere is amazing,” Gurley said. “It is an amazing place to play college football.”
They have impressed opposing coaches.
“(Gurley) reminds me a lot of (former Alabama star) Trent Richardson as far as his lower body strength and (the way) he takes the ball north and south,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri told Sports Illustrated.
“You’re talking about a (220)-pound guy who gets downhill and is as big and as impressive a freshman running back as I’ve seen,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said in the same story.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said both runners are physically strong, very fast and have been able to grasp the offense. He said they are quick learners and have managed to keep a good perspective on the season despite their success.
The Bulldogs’ season had included one exciting game after another until South Carolina pounded them 35-7. Georgia managed only 103 yards rushing. Gurley had 39 yards and Marshall got 37.
Marshall said he barely slept after the game.
“Losing always bothers you,” he said. “But we came in on Monday, watched the tape with the coaches and said it would be an opportunity to learn and get better.
“The South Carolina game hasn’t been mentioned since. We can’t do anything about that game now, but we can get ready to play Kentucky.”
Gurley and Marshall both said they don’t spend time analyzing who puts up the best numbers.
“We can share carries. We need to share carries. It works,” Marshall said. “It has been a great situation for both of us.”