THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Todd Gurley announced his return through the air.
The Los Angeles Rams' star running back caught a short pass on the outside in the third quarter, turned the corner, sprinted directly toward Washington Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland and cleanly leaped over him while on his way to the end zone. For those down on Gurley after a disastrous 2016 season, his leap during Sunday's 27-20 loss was a striking reminder that the 2015 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year can still capture the imagination.
It took Andrew Harding back to a different time.
"I was amazed at first," Harding said. "Then I thought, 'He's still got it.'"
Harding was Gurley's track and field coach at Tarboro High School in Tarboro, North Carolina. Gurley went out for the track team as a sophomore. The program had plenty of fast kids to run sprints, but they didn't have anybody to compete in the hurdles, so they used Gurley. And the more Gurley did it, the more he liked it. He set school records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and won a state championship as a junior.
Harding told Gurley that he could someday win an Olympic gold medal.
"That’s how talented he was," Harding said in a phone interview. "I really do believe he could have been that. I don’t make that comment with just about anybody, but Todd was that gifted."
Hurdling defenders has become a staple of the Gurley highlight mix. He did it in back-to-back weeks at Georgia in 2014, hurdling a poor defender from Tennessee and another from Vanderbilt. As a rookie in 2015, he hurdled Antrel Rolle of the Chicago Bears and K'Waun Williams of the Cleveland Browns. Gurley's scintillating leap over Breeland marked the second time Gurley cleared a defender in Week 2; he also jumped over Kendall Fuller early in the second quarter on a play negated by a holding call.
"I don't really plan on doing it. It just happens," Gurley said. "Guess I still got a little form left in me."
Harding will tell you it's natural ability.
Gurley was bigger than most of the other hurdlers in the state as a teenager. But he was flexible. His hips were high, and he possessed raw explosion. Hurdlers aren't supposed to merely jump over hurdles; they're supposed to power through them. Gurley did so with ease. The trail leg tends to be a problem in that event because it's hard for less-experienced competitors to clear hurdles consistently. Gurley rarely had that problem.
"It was just like a natural gift that he has," Harding said. "You can kind of coach it all you want, but sometimes guys just have it."
Gurley got into hurdles begrudgingly at first, but Tarboro's first meet came against one of the best hurdlers in the state, and Gurley beat him. That energized him. Later in the season, the team got a visit from one of its most esteemed athletes. His name was Chris Heath, and he owned the school's record in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles. When Heath left, Harding informed Gurley how close he already was to breaking Heath's records and told him that perhaps he might get there by his senior year.
Gurley went to work. He practiced with the sprinters, then worked out with the hurdlers. On weekends, he got a ride to the track and trained on his own for up to two hours. By the end of his sophomore year, Gurley had run a personal-best 14.13 in the 110-meter hurdles and a 39.0 in the 300-meter hurdles -- both school records that still stand.
"When he was running track," Harding said, "he was all-in."
Gurley could have won the state championship as a sophomore, but he finished seventh because he clipped a hurdle. He might have won it as a senior, too, but a soft-tissue injury -- and of course, a commitment to play football at Georgia -- forced him to sit out.
Harding, now an assistant coach for Tarboro's football team, always wondered how good a hurdler Gurley might have been if he had received world-class coaching. He remembers how Gurley never broke stride.
"And I think you see that when he hurdles in the NFL," Harding said. "When he lands, it’s not like he stops, has to regroup to keep running. He just keeps running. And I think that’s just a natural skill that he has, that through muscle memory, he doesn’t have to stop. He can just keep running."
Gurley, limited to 885 rushing yards on 278 carries last season, gained 88 yards on 16 carries and another 48 yards on three catches against the Redskins in Week 2. He ran for a touchdown, and for the first time in his career, he caught a pass for a touchdown, too. It came courtesy of a leap that is all over the internet now.
"I don’t know how I did it," Gurley said. "I just did it, man. ... They’re probably going to be expecting that now, so [I] guess I've got to come out with a new move.”