CLEMSON — Wondering what could have been won’t do Dabo Swinney much good Saturday night, but he might not be able to help himself.
Clemson coaches and players can say all they want about how confident they are in the running back by committee the Tigers plan to roll out in 2013. But anyone who says they don’t think Todd Gurley or Keith Marshall would help this football team is most likely being politically correct.
Gurley and Marshall each garnered more than six yards per carry in their freshman seasons at Georgia. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who’s spent a good chunk of his offseason watching film and trying to figure out how to stop them, admits he’s never seen a tandem quite like the Bulldogs feature this year.
Venables, the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator, went so far to compare the 6-1, 233-pound Gurley to another former Sooner and reigning NFL MVP.
“Gurley reminds you a little bit of Adrian Peterson in certain ways, with his strength and his physicality,” Venables said. “He’s a big, violent runner who’s going to run through trash. They do a good job of making your secondary support in the run game, which provides problems for about everybody.”
Gurley and Marshall are roommates, and that’s one pretty accomplished room: 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns as true freshmen, helping the 2012 Bulldogs to a 12-2 record and setting themselves up for their current preseason No. 5 ranking.
“I really love both of those guys,” Swinney said. “I thought we had them both.”
Clemson went after both North Carolina-bred tailbacks hard. In fact, only Clemson and Georgia coaxed both Gurley and Marshall, each top-five tailback prospects in the class of 2012, to take official visits to campus.
Instead of splitting the difference, both prized recruits picked Georgia. Swinney said the 5-11, 219-pound Marshall, rated the No. 1 available tailback in the country by Scout.com and 247Sports.com, “broke our heart” as he retold it Tuesday.
“I think he went to bed that night, maybe thought he was coming to Clemson, had a bad dream or something and woke up and went to Georgia,” Swinney said.
Then there was the case of the four-star prospect Gurley, whose decision was more of a toss-up to Swinney, an unnerving feeling.
“I’m fired up about Gurley, I think we’re going to get Gurley,” Swinney said. “I’ll never forget it, because the day he’s supposed to announce, I’m on edge, and most of the time, not all the time but most the time, you know when you’re getting a guy. Sometimes they’ll fool you, but most of the time you know.”
Sure enough, Gurley and Marshall are playing in this long-awaited showdown Saturday night. But they’ll be dressing in the visitor’s locker room, not rubbing Howard’s Rock and running down The Hill.
“I’m like, how in the world did they get these two great backs?” Swinney said, playfully recalling the pain of losing out in this particular battle from the recruiting trail. “You’ve got to give (Georgia coach Mark Richt) credit: they did a great job of recruiting them the right way, and they went where they feel most comfortable. But two really, really talented, dynamic backs. It’ll be a handful Saturday night.”
Even though Georgia’s rush offense ranked just 43rd nationally last year, the duo named “Gurshall” by pundits combined to average 6.32 yards per rush. No team in the country averaged more than six yards a carry.
“They have such good running backs, it definitely opens up the play-action a lot more for them,” linebacker Spencer Shuey said. “It’ll get our safeties thinking about that run, so they have to be disciplined and read their keys, and don’t worry about the run if they’re not in the run fit.”
Even though he’ll do anything to contain them for one night, Swinney has fond memories of getting to know Gurley and Marshall.
“Great kids, just tremendous in the whole recruiting process, good families,” Swinney said. “Both of them are phenomenal people.”