When sophomore Todd Gurley took his first handoff of the season and raced 75 yards for a touchdown against the Clemson Tigers in August, he seemed to set the bar for one of the greatest seasons in the storied Georgia program's history. Unfortunately for Gurley (and the Dawgs as a whole), much of this season has been spent realigning those early-season expectations.
For Gurley, the season was derailed almost as quickly as it began thanks in no small part to a series of injuries that kept him out for the entirety of three games (Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt) and large portions of three more (Clemson, LSU and Florida).
But even in limited action, Gurley has managed to piece together an impressive season with 781 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. But as Saturday's 59-17 rout of Kentucky demonstrated, expectations are still being modified for the young running back.
This time, however, the latest variation is a positive one coming in the form of an expanded role within Georgia's offense.
In once again limited action against Kentucky (the Dawgs raced out to a sizeable lead and many starters were given some rest in the second half), Gurley established himself as a legitimate receiving threat as he hauled in five receptions for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
Although Mark Richt toyed with utilizing Gurley and fellow running back Keith Marshall as cogs in the passing game against Nebraska last year in the Capital One Bowl, neither back was heavily relied upon as receivers in 2012.
That changed over the past few weeks thanks to a new-found emphasis on utilizing Gurley, Georgia's best playmaker, to catch passes.
With receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley out for the season and Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missing time, this new offensive wrinkle came at a perfect time for a Georgia offense that had been struggling. Against Florida, Gurley hauled in three passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. Against Auburn last week, Gurley registered 77 yards on a team-high 10 catches.
Yet, Gurley's competence has expanded his role from fill-in receiving option to a primary threat in the passing game. For a Georgia offense that will be looking for a new identity in 2014, his newly expanded role as a dual-threat out of the backfield will prove tremendously beneficial.
Next year, Georgia will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time since the 2010 season. Conventional wisdom suggests that capitalizing on Gurley's already existing skill set—patience, soft hands, elusiveness and elite top-end speed—will allow for a new starter like Hutson Mason to move the ball effectively through the air without having to rely as heavily on downfield progressions, reading the defense and accurate deep throws.
Furthermore, with three starters from Georgia's offensive line departing, a short passing game will enable Mason to get the ball out quickly, while allowing an athlete of Gurley's caliber to create big plays. He made a few of those plays on Saturday.
Not only did two of Gurley's five receptions result in touchdowns, but three of his catches went for gains in excess of 15 yards.
As the 2013 season winds down, Gurley's role in the passing game may continue to increase. Aaron Murray left Saturday's ballgame late in the first half with an injury. Although the extent of the damage is unknown, according to Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph, it was announced in the press box that Murray was taken to St. Mary's hospital for an MRI on his left knee.
If Murray is in fact out next week against Georgia Tech or for Georgia's bowl game, expect Gurley to be one of Hutson Mason's primary targets in the passing game in addition to carrying the load on the ground.
As Saturday night's game showed, he's more than up for the task. Despite touching the ball just 13 times, Gurley accounted for 167 total yards of offense against Kentucky.