Georgia Football: Can Todd Gurley Match Herschel Walker's Legacy?

Andrew Hall@DudeYouCrazyCorrespondent IIISeptember 11, 2014

Georgia running back Todd Gurley
Georgia running back Todd GurleyJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

Todd Gurley, the Georgia Bulldogs’ Heisman candidate at running back, has only played one game this season, but he’s already having himself a year.  

And if he maintains his current trajectory, he's going to chase down the legacy of the uncatchable Herschel Walker.

Gurley's record-setting performance in Week 1 against the Clemson Tigers was nothing short of legendary.  He ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns.  He notched a 100-yard kickoff return for another score.  He set a school record for all-purpose yardage in a single game.  And he did all this against what was supposed to be one of the stouter defenses in the country. 

Oh, and Gurley touched the football only 17 times.

In fairness to Gurley, this magnificent effort wasn’t entirely unexpected.  Since arriving on campus in 2012, the talented running back has had a knack for big performances in the biggest of games. 

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The 2012 SEC Championship Game is remembered for Georgia’s last-minute drive that came up five yards short against Alabama.  Lost in that furious and frustrating finish, was Todd Gurley’s 122 rushing yards—the most garnered by any runner against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted national championship defense that season.

Last year, Gurley ran for 154 yards (on just 12 carries) in a close loss to Clemson.  He accounted for 132 yards in a big win over South Carolina and burned LSU for 73 yards on just eight carries before going down with an injury.  Hobbled all year long, Gurley accounted for more than 155 yards of offense in each of his final five games of the 2013 season. 

Over that stretch he scored 10 touchdowns and averaged over 170 yards of offense per outing.

With those performances serving as a backdrop and good health providing further context, Gurley’s game against Clemson was hardly a breakout performance.  To the contrary, it was more of the same for the junior running back.

Somewhat less used, however, are the comparisons to Georgia legend Herschel Walker.  To be sure, Walker is perhaps unmatchable measuring stick by which all Bulldog running backs are measured.  That’s not new by any means.  What’s surprising is just how merited the Gurley/Herschel parallels have become.  More unanticipated still is the fact that some such comparisons actually favor Georgia’s current running back—not the Heisman winner from the early 1980s.

Who would have thought that another Georgia running back would ever threaten Herschel's place atop the Bulldog hierarchy?

Todd Gurley Career Stats
YearRushing YardsReceiving YardsReturn YardsTotal Touchdowns
20121,38511724318
2013989441016
2014198-51004
Sports-Reference.com as of 9/10/2014

The Shadow of Herschel Walker  

Georgia legend Herschel Walker
Georgia legend Herschel WalkerAnonymous/Associated Press

Herschel.

If one is talking Georgia football, the surname is superfluous. 

One of the most highly recruited football players of all time, Herschel was Herschel before he even arrived in Athens.  As a freshman he somehow surpassed impossibly high expectations and ran for over 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns.  Not to be outdone, he ran for 1,891 yards the following season and won the Heisman trophy as a junior thanks to a 1,752-yard performance in 1982.

Herschel Walker spent three years torturing opposing defenses as a Bulldog, and Georgia running backs have spent the last 30 years chasing his ghost.

Herschel Walker Career Rushing Stats
YearCarriesYardsYards Per CarryTotal Touchdowns
19802741,6165.915
19813851,8914.925
19823351,7525.217
Total9945,2595.352
GeorgiaDogs.com

Rodney Hampton was fun to watch, but he wasn’t Herschel.  Garrison Hearst was great, but he wasn’t Herschel.  Musa Smith was a fine running back, but he wasn’t Herschel.  Knowshon Moreno could electrify a crowd, but he wasn’t Herschel.

Former Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno
Former Georgia running back Knowshon MorenoJOHN AMIS/Associated Press

Isaiah Crowell was hailed by the 247Sports Composite as the nation’s best running back in the Class of 2011.  He played one season as a Georgia Bulldog and heard Herschel comparisons before he even put on the red and black.  When reflecting on his lone season as a Dawg this spring, Crowell said he “really tried to minimize” the comparison to Herschel.  But his efforts were fruitless. 

“People compare every running back that comes through Georgia to Herschel Walker,” insisted Crowell, who was honored as SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011.  But he wasn’t Herschel.

Gurley races for a score in his first collegiate game.
Gurley races for a score in his first collegiate game.John Amis/Associated Press

Though I’m sure it was not the very first, I heard one of the initial Gurley/Herschel comparisons in Sanford Stadium on Sept. 1, 2012.  After Gurley ran a kickoff back for a 100-yard score and his second touchdown of the first quarter of his first collegiate game, it was apparent that he was a special talent.  He just wasn’t Herschel special—at least not according to the season ticketholder behind me.

“You know, he’s big and fast,” the man began.  “But he’s not as big as Herschel or as fast as Herschel.  Herschel was at least 30 pounds heavier and a whole lot faster as a freshman.”

Somehow, the passing of time has made Herschel Walker even bigger physically than his eye-popping numbers.  Truth be told, Herschel did not play football at a weight 30 pounds heavier than Gurley, who was listed at 218 pounds as a freshman.  Herschel played at 225 pounds.

But Walker, to the credit of the amateur analyst seated behind me in Section 126 that day, may have been faster than Gurley.  Yet even that judgment is hard to declare definitively. 

Herschel on the track.
Herschel on the track.Bill Ingraham/Associated Press

Both Walker and Gurley boast significant accomplishments on the track, but while Walker focused on short sprints at the collegiate level, Gurley committed his efforts as a freshman to hurdles.  Walker’s sprint debut saw him post a 6.32 second time on the 60-yard dash (just under 55 meters) according to the The New York Times.  In 2013, Gurley ran the 60-meter hurdles in a time in 8.12 seconds (the seventh-fasted time in Georgia history per GeorgiaDogs.com).

On the football field, the two look fast and faster—in no particular order.

Opposing Defenses

Comparisons to Herschel aren’t merely difficult to measure of because of hyperbole or the exaggeration that is sure to add to a legend over time.  Instead, comparisons are confounded by the altered nature of the game.  Put curtly, football was different when Herschel played at Georgia in the early 1980s.

Radi Nabulsi, the publisher of UGASports.com and a Georgia Insider for NBC’s Atlanta affiliate, has covered Georgia football for years and tempers any comparison by observing clear-cut differences in opposing defenses. 

“Defenses have caught up with faster, stronger players on the defensive side of the ball,” Nabulsi says.

Such an observation is not hypothesized conjecture.  Both running backs opened their junior seasons with games against Clemson, but the physical makeup of the two Tiger defenses is both staggering and indicative of a generation-long evolution of athletes.

Gurley faces bigger opposing defenses than Herschel ever saw.
Gurley faces bigger opposing defenses than Herschel ever saw.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

In 1982, Herschel’s junior season, 26 defensive linemen and linebackers were on Clemson’s roster.  The average weight of these athletes was 230.5 pounds.  Only two players in that group were listed at a weight greater than 265 pounds.

The 32 defensive linemen and linebackers on this year’s Clemson roster weigh an average of 253.13 pounds.  Eleven of these players weigh in excess of 265 pounds.

Competition as a whole also confuses direct comparisons.  Gurley is playing during what is arguably the toughest era in Southeastern Conference football history.  For comparison’s sake, two SEC teams finished ranked in the final AP Poll in Walker's sophomore season of 1980 and three teams were ranked at the end of 1981. 

In both 2012 and 2013, seven SEC teams were ranked in the final AP Poll.

Walker played against the same six SEC opponents (Tennessee, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida and Auburn) in each of his first two seasons.  Those six teams combined to go 26-41 (a .388 winning percentage) in 1980 and only one of those teams (Florida at 8-4) finished in the top half of the conference.  The following season those schools combined for a 31-36 record (a .463 winning percentage).

During Gurley’s freshman campaign, Georgia played nine SEC opponents, who accounted for a combined 66-48 record (.579 winning percentage).  Last year, Georgia’s eight conference foes combined for 65 wins and 38 losses (.631 winning percentage).

As dominant as Herschel may have been in the early 1980s, it’s hard to make the case that the defenses he faced were more stifling than those Gurley has seen.

Gurley found hard-earned success against a ferocious Alabama defense as a freshman in 2012.
Gurley found hard-earned success against a ferocious Alabama defense as a freshman in 2012.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Offensive Styles

Of course, Gurley has been aided tremendously by Georgia’s offensive style.  Until this season, he played in the same backfield as the most prolific passer in SEC history, Aaron Murray.  At its most rudimentary nature, the balanced attack orchestrated by coordinator Mike Bobo is designed to keep defenses—bigger and faster though they may be—much more off guard.

Case in point, last year Georgia averaged 34.8 pass attempts per game and 38 rushes per contest.  That balance is distinct, particularly relative to Georgia’s offense in the early 1980s. When Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1982, he carried the ball 335 times.  That year, Georgia attempted just 155 passes. 

Furthermore, the running load has been distributed somewhat equally during Gurley’s tenure.  As a freshman, Gurley accounted for just 222 of Georgia’s 513 carries.  Last year, Gurley carried the ball 165 times while other Bulldogs toted the rock a combined 310 times.  In one contest this season, Gurley notched just 15 of Georgia’s 40 rushes.

Walker, on the other hand, was much more depended upon by the Bulldogs offense, and as a result, the game plans of opposing defenses focused almost exclusively on him.  As Nabulsi summarizes:

Gurley enjoys a strong passing game that softens defenses; Walker didn’t have that luxury (no offense to my man Buck [Belue]).  Opposing defenses knew Walker was going to get the ball. Gurley has also shared the backfield with some talented running backs, allowing him to keep his legs fresh for later in the game.

Should the Comparison Even Exist?

Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report’s Lead SEC Football Writer, says it’s unfair to compare any running back—other than Bo Jackson—to Herschel Walker.  But he recognizes the similarities between Gurley and Walker.  “Both came in as grown men who can run over, around and through opposing defenders,” he observes.

Nabulsi does differentiate between the styles of the two backs, writing “Walker appeared to run with more power and strength.  Yes he was a fast guy, but watching the tapes, he ran north-south, breaking tackles at the line of scrimmage then in the second level.”

“Gurley on the other hand has better vision and sees cutback lanes and cracks the line,” Nabulsi counters.  “Gurley is more elusive, his hips sway out of reach, he stiff arms and slides behind blocks better.”

But it’s hard to argue with the production of either player.

Walker’s 5,259 rushing yards won’t be touched by Todd Gurley.  That much is all but guaranteed.  But even with significantly fewer offensive touches, Gurley could catch several Walker milestones.

Walker scored 52 total touchdowns over a three-year college career.  Already, Gurley has scored 38.  If he can stay healthy for the remainder of this season, that school record will likely topple.

Gurley also could threaten Walker’s all-purpose yards mark if the Bulldogs make it to the SEC Championship Game and at least one additional postseason contest.  Walker finished his career with 5,749 all-purpose yards.  Gurley currently stands at 3,468.  If he gets 13 additional contests, he’ll need to average just over 175 total yards per game.  For context, he’s averaged 190.7 all-purpose yards per game over the course of his last six outings.

Who Wins Out?

“Sure, Gurley is great,” Sallee acknowledges.  “But Walker was on an entirely different level.”

That sentiment is likely the consensus among Bulldog fans, as the uniqueness that defined Herschel is hard to counter.

Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1982.
Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1982.Ray Stubbelbine/Associated Press

“Herschel posted one of the most amazing careers in college football history, finishing in the top three of the Heisman Trophy voting all three years at Georgia,” Sallee recounts.  “That’s not supposed to happen to a running back, or a player at any position.”

But there’s something to be said for what Gurley might still accomplish.  And before that, there’s tremendous value in what he’s already done.

Comparing Gurley and Walker on a game-by-game basis is as futile as it is foolish.  Walker averaged more than 30 carries per game throughout his collegiate career.  Gurley has averaged just north of 16 rushes per contest and carried the ball 30 times on exactly one occasion (against South Carolina last season).

Where things get interesting, however, is when the two studs are compared at the same point—as measured by total carries—in their careers.  To date, Gurley has carried the ball 402 times in 25 games.  Walker carried the ball 403 times over the course of his first 15 games.

Though the argument can be made that Gurley was fresher for the 400 or so carries in this sample, it’s hard to refute the statistical advantage he holds over Walker within these parameters.  The first 402 carries of Gurley’s career resulted in 2,572 yards and 30 touchdowns.  Herschel’s first 403 carries yielded 2,231 yards and 18 scores.

Obviously, more of those carries occurred for Herschel when he was younger—nearly 68 percent of the touches in question occurred during his first season at Georgia.  But Herschel’s most productive year on a per-carry basis was his freshman campaign.

And on a per-carry adjustment, Gurley’s statistical advantage within this sample is decisive.

Todd Gurley vs. Herschel Walker Equal Sample Size Comparison
Herschel WalkerTodd Gurley
Carries403402
Total Yards2,2312,572
Yards Per Carry5.5366.398
Rushing Touchdowns1830
Percent of Carries Resulting in TD4.47%7.46%
Rushing First Downs87103
Percent of Carries Resulting in First Down21.59%25.62%
Runs of 10-plus Yards5792
Percent of Runs Resulting in 10-plus Yards14.14%22.89%
GeorgiaDogs.com, Sports-Reference.com

And these numbers do not include Gurley’s production as a receiver or his special teams prowess. 

Currently, Gurley claims 553 career receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns to go with two scores on special teams play.  Herschel’s three-year career resulted in 243 career receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns and no special teams scores.

The Legacy Gurley Can Leave

Earlier this week, Georgia head coach Mark Richt hinted at the seemingly obvious notion that Gurley will forgo his senior season as a Bulldog and enter the NFL draft.

Undoubtedly, the junior will be atop most draft boards at his position if he does in fact leave.  What remains to be seen is where he’ll fit in the Georgia record book.

From a theoretical standpoint, Gurley could chase down Walker’s all-purpose yards and touchdown marks and he could do so with higher per-touch averages in just about every major category.  But would that be enough to put him at the upper echelon of Bulldog lore? 

Most likely not—at least not without a national championship. 

Walker still has some fight left in him.
Walker still has some fight left in him.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

And even if the Dawgs were to win the inaugural College Football Playoff, Gurley is fighting an uphill battle.  Thirty long years of Herschel talk have made Walker insurmountable as a legend.  And to Walker’s credit, he’s added to his own legacy by conquering professional football (in two leagues), the Olympics (he finished seventh at the 1992 Winter Games in the two-man bobsled) and even mixed martial arts.

Accordingly, numbers, highlights and even championships may not be enough to win over the Georgia faithful as the long-established predisposition of Bulldog fans is that there will never be another Herschel Walker.

As Nabulsi summarizes, “Gurley is the man, but Walker was a once in a lifetime talent.”

Nevertheless, at some point—maybe sooner than later—Georgia fans will realize a given lifetime doesn’t see too many talents like the one who currently wears number three in the backfield for the Bulldogs, either. 

Maybe then, we’ll spend the next 30 years looking fruitlessly for the next Todd Gurley.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.  All statistics pertaining to Herschel Walker accessed via GeorgiaDogs.com.  All statistics pertaining to Todd Gurley and team and conference records accessed via Sports-Reference.com.