Bucking the trend

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's problems keeping its tailbacks out of trouble is no secret -- which is another reason why Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley appear to be a godsend for the Bulldogs.

Not only did the two freshmen rank among the nation's most sought-after tailback recruits of 2012, they don't seem to possess personalities that will create problems away from the field. That's exactly what the Bulldogs need, considering they've lost five scholarship tailbacks in the last 25 months -- most recently 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell, who was dismissed in June after his arrest on felony handgun possession charges -- to an array of academic and disciplinary issues.

Freshman Figures

Eight Georgia scholarship tailbacks have played as true freshmen for coach Mark Richt. Here is how they stack up in order of total rushing yardage.

"Those two guys have got their head on their shoulders and I think they've got a bright future. I don't think they'll be one-and-done for any reason," Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason said. "You can just tell by a kid's demeanor if he's got his head on his shoulders, and Keith's just a really smart kid and Todd is really quiet, kind of sticks to himself. But I think that's what we need in the backfield now after everything we've gone through."

The Bulldogs need that personality type in their tailbacks after a 2011 season in which Crowell and his position mates seemed to create problems far too often. Crowell had several well-publicized disciplinary issues, but Carlton Thomas -- who was second on the team with 361 rushing yards and left the Bulldogs after serving three separate one-game suspensions last season -- and Ken Malcome also ran into trouble away from the field.

As much as he brought many of his problems on himself, Crowell never seemed comfortable in the spotlight during his time at Georgia. His inability to function properly with so many eyeballs following his every move became an ongoing storyline throughout his year on campus.

Because Marshall and Gurley play such a high-profile position, running backs coach Bryan McClendon said he must go out of his way to guard the freshmen as they try to adjust to occupying the same spotlight that hampered Crowell's development.

"I think you definitely have to take that into account," McClendon said. "And you tell those guys, whether they think it's fair or not is really beside the point. You're held to a different standard than some of the other positions on this team, some of the other positions in this conference, some of the other positions in this country, just being a tailback here at Georgia. You have to make sure they understand that."

The tailback position has essentially been a mess at Georgia since Knowshon Moreno left the program for the NFL after the 2008 season. All of the players the Bulldogs have trotted out with any regularity since then have either found themselves in disciplinary hot water or struggled to stay healthy long enough to hold onto the starting job.

Washaun Ealey and Caleb King seemed to be building something special at the end of the 2009 season -- particularly in an upset win against Georgia Tech when they combined to rush for 349 rushing yards -- but neither player was particularly accountable as a student-athlete. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt finally released Ealey after spring practice in 2011 following a series of off-the-field problems. King's departure came a few months later when Georgia declared him academically ineligible and he opted to leave school for the NFL.

Their early departures left Crowell as the leading man in the backfield last fall, and while he was the nation's No. 1 tailback recruit according to ESPN, Georgia's depth issues pushed him immediately onto center stage when he clearly needed time to mature. And so it came as little surprise when barely a year after enrolling at UGA, Crowell finally pushed Bulldogs coach Mark Richt far enough to kick him off the team following his June arrest.

As a result, Georgia once again will rely on players who are short on experience as featured tailbacks -- a four-man group that also includes Malcome and Richard Samuel. The good news is that the newcomers are by all accounts players who will not find themselves listed on the police blotter.

In fact, Marshall in February won the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award, which goes to the nation's top African-American male high school scholar-athlete, after he graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA.

"I can't speak for everybody, but I know I will not be in trouble, get suspended or anything like that," Marshall said. "I know me and Todd, we'll make sure we keep each other out of trouble."

Gurley said he understood the situation he faced when he arrived at Georgia -- just a few weeks before Crowell's departure. He wants to play this season and he knows staying on the straight and narrow will help his cause immensely.

"If you do one bad thing, that's just going to mess everything up and it's going to be hard," Gurley said. "I think we're doing a pretty good job right now and just impressing people and just working hard."

That they are. Georgia's coaches have said repeatedly during preseason practice that the two freshmen are ready to carry the ball this fall. They still have a lot to learn about pass protection assignments and have adjustments to make to their techniques, but Marshall and Gurley have impressed everyone with their businesslike approaches.

After all of the problems Georgia tailbacks have created in the last two years, Marshall and Gurley's attitudes are a welcome change.

"As long as they stay healthy, I expect them to have a big impact because they've got to play," Mason said. "And you know once you start playing for Georgia, you become a household name and people start recognizing you.

"I expect those two kids to keep their head on their shoulders because you can just tell they've been raised right and they're different than most guys that we've had around here at that position."