Clemson run-stuffers talk tough, ready for Georgia's Gurley

Georgia running back Todd Gurley, right, breaks the tackle of Clemson's Bashuad Breeland, center, to score a third quarter touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

CLEMSON - Everyone's familiar with Clemson's legion of extraordinary pass-rushers, since Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett and promising youngsters make themselves at home in the backfield.

How about that run defense? It was demonstrably less impressive; the Tigers ranked No. 53 in the category in 2013, despite dropping opposing ball-carriers backwards on a nation-leading 123 tackles last year.

"We're trying to get rid of shooting ourselves in the foot," said Jarrett, the senior nose tackle and heart of Clemson's defense. "Just eliminate the mistakes and make the plays when they're there.

"As far as anybody overpowering us and just running down our throats, that's not happening."

Well, it happened four times last fall, when Syracuse tailback Jerome Smith (18 carries for 125 yards and one touchdown), Georgia Tech A-back Robert Godhigh (12-126, 2 TD) and Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde (25-113, TD) each ran over the Clemson defense. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw also scrambled for 94 critical yards.

No one had their way with the Tigers on the ground more than the guy who had the first crack at them.

Todd Gurley, Georgia's sensational then-sophomore, ripped around right tackle for a 75-yard score on the first running play against Clemson in 2013.

Gurley ended up with 154 yards and two touchdowns, despite logging just 12 carries, as he left briefly in the second quarter with a thigh injury.

"When people say he's 235 (pounds), that's an understatement," senior defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. "When you see him in person, he's a big boy. And he's a lot faster than what people think."

In coordinator Brent Venables' 10 years as a defensive play-caller at Oklahoma and Clemson, Gurley is the only player to eclipse 151 rushing yards and multiple scores.

To Venables - whose two previous Clemson teams haven't allowed another 150-yard rusher besides Gurley - the trick is pushing the pile against Georgia's offensive line.

"It's a huge challenge," Venables said. "They know what they're doing and they do it well. They're very aggressive in how they run the football - they run it downhill.

"They attacked us, had us on our heels at times last year. They'll physically try to impose their will on you and they'll be very persistent about it."

After earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference running back honors as a freshman, Gurley only played in 10 games last year, still maintaining his 98.9 yards-per-game clip (identical to 2012) and garnering six yards a carry.

"He's a horse. Powerful, explosive guy," Anthony said. "Runs fast, runs hard, and he's going to give us everything he's got."

Of course, Gurley and Georgia lost last year's showdown in Death Valley, 38-35. Clemson makes the return trip a week from Saturday (Aug. 30, 5:30 p.m., ESPN), lending the Bulldogs an opportunity at revenge and Gurley a potential Heisman-opening statement against a respected defense.

"I enjoy watching Todd play. It's going to be an honor, like it was last year, to play against him," Jarrett said. "We've got to get a lot of hats to him. I personally believe he's one of the best in the country. So we're going to be ready for him. I think it's going to be a really good matchup."

In the Tigers' latest intrasquad scrimmage Saturday, D.J. Howard had a 40-yard touchdown run, and not because he had a wide-open running lane.

"We try to knock a guy down with our shoulders instead of wrapping him up with our arms. A good back will run through that," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "You've got to make tackles in space, otherwise it's a big play."

Anthony and Williams each hinted Venables has made some subtle changes to the Tigers' rush-defense scheme up front, to try to corral home-run threats like Gurley.

"It's developing good, because we know the scheme now," Williams said. "Everybody's playing where they need to play and being disciplined. We're not playing over each other, everybody has an assignment and they're sticking to it."

Two other top tailbacks - Boston College's Andre Williams, a Heisman finalist last year, and South Carolina's Mike Davis, a Heisman hopeful this year - combined for 92 yards on 39 carries, evidence the Tigers have it in them. But, as Jarrett said, "Gurley is his own man."

And at 6-1, 226 with jet-pack speed, he is all man.

"Things we've done against Mike Davis and Andre Williams, that's not going to help us win at UGa," Jarrett said. "We've got great respect for them, and looking forward to it."