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Todd Gurley isn't running from the NFL's questions

THE KID IN the khaki-colored pants and the red Georgia golf shirt is trying to blend in. He is doing a horrible job.

It's March 18, T-minus six weeks to the start of the NFL draft. The football practice fields in Athens, Georgia, are surrounded for UGA's pro day. And the weather is cooperating: It's nice -- not hot, not cold, just nice. But every now and then, a better-lock-your-knees crosswind bursts its way up South Lumpkin Street. On a normal Wednesday, no one would notice. But today it blows in worries of altering 40-yard dash times and thus the trajectory of one's draft stock.

All but one of the 32 NFL teams are here, represented by a sea of scouts, front office execs and one head coach. They encircle 18 players, former Bulldogs who have their sights set on the NFL. Also lingering in the crowd is an odd mix of current and former Dawgs, athletic department employees, friends and family, sports agency reps and, yes, the kid in the khaki-colored pants. He's the 19th player on the day's list of pro prospects, but he's not working out. Instead, he keeps moving among the masses, trying his best to hide. The plan is not effective.

"Yeah, I see Todd Gurley over there," a scout says with a wink, one eye on his clipboard as players start lining up for standing broad jumps, the other eye on the kid in the dreads sipping on a bottle of Powerade. "Look around, man," the scout continues. "We're all watching him. He's not working out, but he's not limping, either. He can't work out, but he still showed up. Everywhere he is today, the crowd reacts to him. That's a special kid. We're all excited about him, there's so much potential there, but we're all trying to play it cool."

Then, right on cue, Gurley looks over, sensing that he's the topic of conversation. He gives the scout a tight-lipped smile and a nod from 30 yards away.

"See?" The scout laughs. "He's trying to play it cool, too. But he just sniffed us out like we were a free safety trying to run him down. Excuse me as I jot down 'field vision' in my notes here."

THESE DAYS, SUCH RUDIMENTARY, nuanced scouting reports are all anyone can collect on Gurley. It has been this way since Nov. 15, when the tailback planted his left leg for a late-game cutback against Auburn. Once the 510th and final carry of his college career came to a crashing, agonizing halt, questions of What if? have surrounded Gurley. What if he hadn't gotten injured? What if he could have worked out at the combine, demonstrating his once-every-blue-moon combination of speed, agility and power? What if there were no questions, no doubts -- no MRIs to scan, no scandals to outrun?

Yes, everything changed on that chilly November night, and Gurley knew it the instant it happened.

"As soon as I planted, I could hear and feel a pop," the 20-year-old says as he recalls when he tore his ACL. "I've been hurt before. A bunch of times. I'd hurt my shoulder earlier in that same game. But this was different. I was sitting up on the table, hoping that it wasn't, but I pretty much knew it as soon as it happened. A week later I was in surgery. The next day I was in rehab. Since then we've just been doing it right, climbing up step-by-step slowly."

He grimaces a little. "Slowly isn't really my thing."

No it isn't. Gurley is what scouts call a one-move runner, not as in "he has only one move," but rather "he's one move away from burying you." At 6-foot-1, 222 pounds, he lives to lower his shoulder and go full Eddie George bulldozer on unsuspecting defensive backs. With a career average of 6.4 yards per carry and a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns, he comes with ready-made explosiveness in the open field, much like his favorite college player (and now confidant) C.J. Spiller. In 2012, as a freshman, Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards. His final carry against Auburn upped his total to 3,285 yards, and his score earlier in the game marked No. 36 in his career. All of those numbers are second only to demi-dawg Herschel Walker in the annals of UGA history, and Gurley did it in what amounted to only two and half seasons' worth of games.

A pair of pro-day onlookers, knowing they won't see him run on this day, stand on the sideline watching Gurley run on their smartphones. It's a YouTube clip entitled "Todd Gurley Top 10 Plays," and they are rewatching a lengthy dash against Tennessee from September 2012. "People talk about the 1-yard leap he had looking like Herschel because he got so high, but this is the damn play right here," the fan says, holding up his Galaxy. At the handoff, Gurley looks to be hitting the hole behind center but suddenly cuts to the wide side of the field. Less than five steps later he is upfield, slicing through linebackers at full speed as he begins a slanting dash to the sideline that causes two Vols to collide. He snap-breaks a tackle, stops, starts again, picks up two blockers before he appears cornered. He stutter-steps, accelerates again, just briefly enough to slide past danger and slip inside the pylon for a 51-yard touchdown.

"The known part of all this is what you can see, and that's the tape, and in Gurley's case, that tape is spectacular," explains former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. "But you have to fill the holes in that résumé with something. And you have to go back and figure out why those holes are there in the first place."

Even prior to the ACL injury, concerns over Gurley's durability lingered. In 2013, he missed three games and chunks of others due to nagging aches and pains that seemed to never go away. It started with a pop to the thigh in the opener against Clemson and was compounded by an ankle sprain against LSU in Week 5. The dings derailed a potential Heisman run, bogged Georgia down, resulting in a disappointing 8-5 season, and led to some public disagreement between coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo over how the back should be handled during 2014 spring practice.

"I hear that, but no one has been more frustrated by my injuries than me," Gurley says. "I hope that what NFL teams see from me is that I never stop pushing. It takes a lot of work to come back from being hurt. And it takes a lot of patience. Me not having my knee examined at the combine or not working out there or at Georgia pro day, no one's ducking anything. The teams know that. We talk about that in our interviews when I visit teams."

He has had a dozen or so such visits in the lead-up to the draft, and that tally doesn't include the chats, both official and casual, at Indianapolis and in Athens. Each conversation starts the same: Topic No. 1 is always the knee. How's it feeling? ("Fine. Right on schedule. Limp has been gone for a while now.") You running yet? ("Yes, started reversing and turning at Dr. James Andrews' place in Pensacola.") Will you be ready for organized team activities later this spring? ("By late May? I think so. By mid-June minicamp, I'm pretty confident.")

As talk of his knee winds to a close, Gurley knows Topic No. 2 -- "the autograph thing," as he calls it -- isn't too far behind. In a way, the ACL has been a blessing during the draft interview process because it has pushed the questions about his scribblings onto Page 2 of subjects to discuss. "Of course it's going to come up. It has to," Gurley admits, as he forces the wary smile of your friend who did you wrong, knows he did you wrong, and is opening his arms and pointing to his jaw to say, Go on, man, take your best shot. We both know I deserve it.

On Oct. 9 he was suspended by Georgia while it investigated accusations he had accepted cash from a sports memorabilia dealer to sign items that could be turned around for sale, a clear violation of NCAA rules that prevent student-athletes from profiting from their own likeness while still in school. To make matter worse for Gurley, his incident was the first high-profile autograph mess to occur after the Johnny Manziel scandal of August 2013, and it also fell right in the middle of the fallout from the Ed O'Bannon vs. NCAA lawsuit over the sanctioning body's use of student-athletes for profit when those students weren't able to do it themselves.

"I'll tell you the same thing I tell NFL teams when they ask," he says, sighing and trudging ahead. "I made a mistake. I own it. I'd done the same thing my freshman and sophomore years and should have never done it then, either. You do something and get away with it, and it's like, 'OK, one more time won't hurt.' I knew the rules and I broke them. And that was stupid. It cost me. It cost me last fall and it keeps coming up, so it's still costing me now."

"Me not having my knee examined at the combine or not working out there or at Georgia pro day, no one's ducking anything. The teams know that." former Georgia running back Todd Gurley

The suspension ended up lasting four weeks -- a month of national debate over what should and shouldn't be acceptable for both athletes and the NCAA. A month of too much fame for smarmy autograph dealers, a spotlight flicked on and operated by a pair of bad business associates, Bryan Allen and Shane Smith. They'd paid Gurley $400 for signing a stack of items while sitting in Allen's car, and then when both the market and their relationship went south, they turned on each other, with Allen shilling info, photos and video to national media outlets. Gurley's front-running Heisman campaign was parked. During his absence, Georgia suffered a huge upset loss to archrival Florida. He returned for the Auburn game, surpassed Garrison Hearst for second on UGA's all-time rushing list and then tore his ACL.

What. If.

"You're the one who brought up what-ifs," he says while going over his abbreviated career. "I try not to focus on that, but I can't help it sometimes. We were so close to winning championships. I missed 10 games. What if I had gotten to play in all of those games? We'll never know, and we can't go back and fix it. So now I'm focused on making sure I can max things out at the next level."

That means change. Changing perception about his injuries. Changing the mindset of NFL front offices during this weird, unforeseen era of RB-less first rounds. But he politely refuses to change his lack of enthusiasm for becoming an advocate for NCAA reform, despite the fact that the conversation about it takes place at the same time his name is being shouted on the floor of the State House. On March 31, the "Gurley Bill" -- House Bill 3 (check his jersey number) -- was approved overwhelmingly by the Georgia State Senate to ratchet up penalties for entering into transactions that "would likely be cause for the student-athlete to permanently or temporarily lose athletic scholarship eligibility [or] the ability to participate on an intercollegiate athletic team." What was once a misdemeanor would now carry a $25,000 fine and possible time behind bars. As it departed the Senate for the governor's mansion via a 48-4 vote, it did so amid shouts of "Go Dawgs!" from some of those who had just voted.

From pundits to politicians, everyone wants Gurley to become the spokesman for the cause of the student-athlete as pawn. Everyone but Gurley.

"I think the bill is great, but having your name on it as the guy who caused it might not be so great," he admits, chuckling. "In the end, like I've said all along, it's up to the athlete. You know what's right and what's wrong. What I did was wrong. It doesn't matter what you might think of the rule, it's the rule. If you break it and know that you are breaking it, then you pay the consequences. That's pretty simple. My lesson is out there now. I hope others see and learn from it. That's the positive I'm rolling with out of all this."

As for the NFL, it seems to be cutting through Gurley's autograph mess as quickly as he cuts through holes at the line of scrimmage. "A mistake is a mistake and all he's done is been up front about it with everyone," one of the scouts on hand at UGA's pro day says, literally shrugging off the topic. "It's all context. If you're Johnny Manziel and there's this list of habitual dumbass mistakes and an autograph thing is just part of the list, then it's a big deal. But if it's a kid who pocketed some cash and it cost him a Heisman, but then you see how he conducts himself otherwise and you see how others react to him and the rest of his record is spotless, then damn, man, whatever. Show me the tapes, and if he's good, then let's play football."

Those tapes are Todd Gurley's best friend. So are the positive progress reports coming from Pensacola, the same Athletes' Performance facility that brought Adrian Peterson back from ACL and MCL injuries to NFL MVP. Gurley's repair job is markedly simpler. Only his ACL was harmed, and, in the words of Dr. Andrews, "it was a helpfully clean tear."

Gurley hopes to make an equally clean tear in Thursday night's first round, parting ways with the last questions about autographs in parked cars and breaking away from that most irritating question of them all: What if?

"You get tired of that word 'potential,' you know?" he says. "Hearing people talk about how good you could really be, what you could have done if you didn't have to deal with this or deal with that. When I'm fortunate enough to hear a team call my name and I finally get back onto the field in pads and it's time to go, man ..."

He pauses, tugging at his red golf shirt. "I don't care what uniform I've got on this fall. I'm just ready to put one on again."