Who doesn’t have a soft-spot for a hometown boy? I know I do. It’s why to this day Julius Peppers still remains my all-time favorite Carolina Panther. He was the OG Backyard Baller, playing high-school ball about 45 minutes away from where I grew up. As a senior, one my good friends lined up across from Peppers, who was a freshman at the time, and he knew even then he was going to be special.
When Carolina selected him #1 overall, my love affair was forever cemented. I know, I know, his departure was controversial and that many fans still have ill-will towards Pep, but I’ll always like the guy because he is a hometown boy.
There’s another Backyard Baller, who potentially can become as transformative a player as Peppers was, entering the NFL Draft this year--Todd Gurley II. Playing high-school ball in Tarboro, NC, one town even closer to me than Peppers, this Backyard Baller was on pace to be a top-ten overall pick prior to suffering an ACL injury in November. Given some concerns about his durability already, suffering an ankle injury in his junior year and the most recent ACL tear, Gurley’s stock has slipped. Some mocks forecast him falling to the second round. His stock may have fallen, but his potential hasn’t.
Although the running back has been a devalued position as of late, manifesting in far fewer first round draft selections, occasionally a generational type player comes around. Adrian Peterson showed how powerful of a force that type of back could be. Gurley has that type of dynamism. The question is can he bounce back from this knee injury, and can he stay healthy enough to prove it?
Todd Gurley (RB) 6’1 232 lbs
Gurley comes from humble beginnings. The youngest of four children in a single-parent home, Gurley’s mother moved her family from Baltimore, eventually settling Tarboro, NC, to escape the troubles of Bodymore, Maryland. Working the night-shift to provide, Darlene Simmons, Gurley’s mother, reports they got by, even if it was just on “oatmeal” for dinner at times. “We didn't have big, expensive things, Simmons recalled, “but he always had clean, pressed clothes, food and a roof over his head. He always had friends and love. We stuck together through the good and the bad."
Gurley’s first interest was basketball, but he eventually found his true home on the football field. The ensuing high-school career was impressive. With 4 TDs and 242 rushing yards, Gurley led the Tarboro Vikings to a third consecutive state title. He was also named NC Associated Press Player of the Year for his 2,600 yds and 36 TD senior season.
Gurley escaped the courtship of any state school, and instead headed south to the University of Georgia. The SEC stage wasn’t too big for the small-town back, who became the school’s first freshman running back to top 1000 yards since Herschel Walker.
When Gurley broke a 75-yd TD run against Clemson to start his sophomore season, all signs indicated his continued dominance. The momentum was difficult to maintain, however, as minor injuries troubled his second season, and a 4-game suspension for a minor NCAA rules violation impeded his junior campaign. Any chance Gurley did find the field, he made the most of it. Following his suspension, Gurley reminded the nation he was the best back in college football. Rushing for 138 yds and a touchdown, Gurley would have single-handedly dismantled the Auburn Tigers had it not been for a penalty that negated a 105-yard opening kickoff return touchdown. Gurley’s electrifying performance, nevertheless, was once again dampened by injury. This time it wasn’t minor. A serious ACL tear ended his season and ultimately his college career.
Only one thing has effectively slowed Gurley down--injuries. Until this ACL tear, even injuries have struggled. Gurley rushed for 242 yards and 4 touchdowns to win a state championship on a bum ankle. He battled through another ankle injury his sophomore season, and in his junior year he overcame a strained hamstring.
So why is Gurley worth the gamble? He’s good at everything. Catching the ball, hitting the hole, cutting back, picking up blocks, breaking tackles, making big plays, Gurley just gets it done. It’s so effortless that he at times doesn’t appear exceptional at any one thing, but just simply great at everything. Adam Baliatico described, “He runs with Le'Veon Bell like patience and Ray Rice in his prime like decisiveness. He has a great ability to see the cutback lane and explode through it. His work ethic is extraordinary and he is the ultimate team first player.”
Given Carolina’s experience with Jonathan Stewart, it’s understandable a weariness of drafting a running back with habitual injury problems. Gurley doesn’t have any real holes in his game. He has great balance, power, and an explosiveness that would make him an immediate contributor. He has the size and speed that translates to the NFL. More importantly, he has one thing that is hardly quantifiable--desire. Commenting on the importance of his mother and her sacrifices, Gurley stated:
"Things got rough, but my mom always provided for us -- especially me. I never had it as hard as my brothers and sisters. I was the youngest and the one who was spoiled. I don't think she understands how much I'm doing this for her and my family. When I make it, we're all going to make it, and I can see her not struggle anymore."
With this type of determination, this injury won’t be able to bring Gurley down any easier than some would-be tackler would.
The Panthers need a back, and Carolina is finally at the end of their suffocating running back contracts. Many think Carolina will part ways with DeAngelo Williams this offseason, and Stewart’s success last season, while endearing, is temporary at best. It’s time for a new running back era in Carolina. The position’s devaluation over the last decade, however, may have discouraged teams from looking at backs in the first round, but Gurley isn’t any typical talent. This Backyard Baller can be generational type player who carries Carolina into the future.
By the Professor aka Tony Dunn
Follow him on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles