Georgia Football: Todd Gurley Won't Win the Heisman, but That's a Good Thing

Andrew HallCorrespondent IIIMay 28, 2014

Georgia RB Todd Gurley
Georgia RB Todd GurleyJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Last month, Seth Emerson of The Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) reported that a fan asked Georgia head coach Mark Richt about the possibility of a Heisman campaign for star running back Todd Gurley.  Richt responded by saying:

I don't think you have to have a campaign for the Heisman. I think the numbers will speak for themselves. I think his highlights will speak for themselves. The Heisman usually goes to a team that's winning and somebody that's just doing superb work, and has a little bit of a flare about him.

In many ways, Richt accurately summarized Gurley's career as a Bulldog.  He's been statistically impressive while generating highlight after highlight and contributing at a high level to Georgia's success.  

That being said, even a continuation of such stellar performance won't garner Gurley a Heisman Trophy in 2014, but that's a good thing for Georgia.

 

Crowded Backfield

Georgia's backfield will be crowded in 2014 when Gurley is rejoined by Keith Marshall, who is expected to be back from injury, Brendan Douglas and two of the nation's best incoming freshmen, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.  Add A.J. Turman (who redshirted as a freshman in 2013) to the mix, and there's little surprise as to why J.J. Green, the team's second-leading rusher last season, so eagerly moved to defensive back this spring.

Gurley gets away from a Florida Gator.
Gurley gets away from a Florida Gator.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

And yet despite boasting what may be the SEC's deepest stable of running back talent, Gurley is unquestionably the group's leader thanks to his immense talent and history of top-tier performances—particularly in Georgia's biggest games.  That wealth of surrounding may push Gurley during practice, allow him to catch his breath on a few more plays and otherwise support him, but there's another consequence to having so many options.

Those players are going to take some carries that could have otherwise belonged to Gurley.

If the past 10 years of Georgia football are any indication, Gurley is unlikely to garner more than 45 percent of the Dawgs' total rushing attempts.  In fact, over the past decade, only one Bulldog back—Knowshon Moreno—has accounted for that much of Georgia's total workload on the ground.

Georgia Running Backs Work Loads
YearLeading RusherPercentage of Team's Carries
2004Thomas Brown37.15%
2005Thomas Brown32.31%
2006Kregg Lumpkin38.03%
2007Knowshon Moreno48.72%
2008Knowshon Moreno58.69%
2009Washaun Ealey27.96%
2010Washaun Ealey34.51%
2011Isaiah Crowell31.79%
2012Todd Gurley42.29%
2013Todd Gurley33.95%
AVERAGE38.37%
ESPN.com

It's worth noting that 2008 was a true anomaly within the confines of recent Georgia history.  That season, Moreno was backed up by Caleb King, a redshirt freshman who carried the ball just 61 times on the season.  Quarterback Matthew Stafford was third on the team with 55 rushing attempts.  Wide receiver A.J. Green was fourth on the team in rushing yards despite carrying the ball just four times.  Moreno did not have a crowd comparable to the depth Georgia will have at running back in 2014.

 

High Demands for Heisman Winners

Ultimately, the depth and variety in skill sets provided by the likes of Marshall, Douglas, Michel, Chubb and Turman make Georgia a better team.  As last year demonstrated, there's no such thing as too much depth—especially when ACL injuries become mysteriously contagious.  Furthermore, having a number of fresh legs ready to come in and share the load during late-season conference games is invaluable.

So while those players may get a few carries of their own, it will be for the greater good of the team.  But that dispersion could realistically cost Gurley the Heisman.

Only five running backs have won the Heisman Trophy over the past 20 years.  All five of those running backs received more carries than one can reasonably expect for Gurley in 2014.  The table below shows the last five Heisman-winning running backs and their rushing attempts per game for all matchups prior to the Heisman Trophy ceremony (this data excludes bowl games).

Heisman Winners and Rush Attempts Per Game
YearHeisman WinnerSchoolRush Attempts Per Game
2009Mark IngramAlabama19.15
1999Ron DayneWisconsin27.55
1998Ricky WilliamsTexas30.09
1995Eddie GeorgeOhio State25.25
1994Rashaan SalaamColorado24.64
WEIGHTED AVERAGE25.12
Sports-Reference.com

Over the course of his career, Gurley has registered 387 rushing attempts in 24 games for an average of 16.13 attempts per outing.  Even if his partial games (he missed sizable portions of the Clemson, LSU and Florida games last season due to injury) are removed, that average only moves to 16.67 attempts per game.  The five Heisman-winning running backs of the past 20 years have collectively averaged over 25 rushing attempts per game en route to taking home the most coveted hardware in college football.  Gurley has carried the football 25 or more times in just two games over the course of his career.

Data via Sports-Reference.com

For Gurley to even average 20 rushing attempts per game, he'd have to take on an uncharacteristically high percentage of the Dawgs' carries, which seems unlikely given the aforementioned embarrassment of running back riches.  Over the past 10 seasons, Georgia has averaged roughly 36.5 runs per game.  Twenty totes per outing would represent nearly 55 percent of that total figure.  Even when he was completely healthy in 2012, Gurley only accounted for 42 percent of the team's carries.

 

Exceptions and Implications

Obviously, there are exceptions to statistics, and for Gurley's offensive production, that exception is an obvious one: His role as a receiver.  Gurley has been increasingly active in Georgia's passing game and finished 2013 with an astounding 441 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 37 catches.  If he continues to be used by quarterback Hutson Mason, then the usage models above (which rely exclusively on running backs' running) may be somewhat obsolete.

Furthermore, as Mark Ingram showed in 2009, being the most noteworthy player on a dominant team can also generate Heisman votes.  If Georgia were to win the SEC and punch a ticket to the first round of the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Gurley were the most deserving Bulldog, there's a tremendous chance that he would find himself in New York City for the ceremony.  But he'd still probably need an increase in workload and a successful season as a dual-threat offensive producer to win outright.

The award, however, is not Gurley's only priority, and as Richt implied while shooting down the notion of launching a formal campaign in support of his stud running back, it's not at the top of the team's to-do list either.  

In that light, Heisman hype may give Bulldog fans something to talk about—and rightfully so.  But a prolific ground attack led by Gurley and balanced out by a host of his backfield companions gives him the best shot at staying healthy and the Dawgs the best shot at winning the conference.