ATLANTA — Todd Gurley was already a big man on campus by the time he returned to the University of Georgia for the start of his junior year in the summer of 2014.
A two-time All-SEC running back, Gurley was widely considered one of the best players in the country. So when a handful of talented new players joined the program, Gurley took it upon himself to take them under his wing.
One of those players was a promising freshman by the name of Sony Michel.
“Good player – I remember when he came in he couldn’t really run and catch, so I had to teach him how to do all that stuff,” Gurley joked.
Gurley and Michel only spent one year together as teammates, but since then they have followed similar paths to success. Gurley was drafted No. 10 overall by the then-St. Louis Rams in the 2015 and has gone on to earn All-Pro honors three times.
Michel, meanwhile, had a fantastic career at Georgia, surpassing Gurley (3,285 yards) to become the No. 3 rusher in school history with 3,638 yards. He also earned a first-round selection (No. 31 overall) by the New England Patriots this past April, and after some early injury struggles has established himself as one of the most productive backs in football.
Now, the two former Bulldogs will face off as opponents in Super Bowl LIII.
Though Gurley and Michel don’t plan on speaking before the game, they have remained close. They share a bond forged during those sweltering late-summer days in Athens when they ran through former Georgia running back coach Bryan McClendon’s drills together.
“We used to have to carry two balls all the time, go under the bags, do high knees, under a chute,” Gurley said. “It was college stuff, but it helped us out.”
Michel said he knew about Gurley before his arrival at Georgia, but was grateful that the upperclassman welcomed him and fellow freshman standout Nick Chubb.
“I knew he was a great player, but he is a great person, and it was pretty cool to be able to know that I was going to be with a great guy like him,” Michel said of his first impression of Gurley.
Michel said he and Gurley have kept in touch in the pros. Most of the time they’ll congratulate each other after a big game.
Even today, with the two players set to face off on the game’s biggest stage as equals, Gurley looks to Michel as a sort of younger brother. Following Michel’s 129-yard, three-touchdown performance in the AFC Divisional win over the Chargers, Gurley tagged Michel on Twitter with the comment “Lil bro eating,” and during his media availabilities this week he has repeatedly praised his former teammate — while still taking a small amount of credit for his success.
“I taught him everything he knows — that's why he's in the Super Bowl now!” said Gurley, who later added “Hopefully everything I taught him, he doesn’t do it, so he just plays like he used to play before I taught him everything.”
At the end of the day, both players are determined to help deliver their team a championship, no matter who they have to beat along the way. But regardless of how things play out, the two are grateful to have an opportunity to play for a title while representing “Running Back U.”
“We’re playing in the Super Bowl," Gurley said of Georgia. "Nobody else is.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MacCerullo.