AUBURN, Ala. — Todd Gurley needs no introduction.
But in a way, he's reintroducing himself this weekend. Coming off a four-game suspension handed down by the NCAA after it discovered Gurley had accepted more than $3,000 in exchange for autographs on various pieces of memorabilia, Georgia's junior running back will return Saturday. He's not only going to play, however; he's going to start.
And therein lies the challenge for Auburn: How do you defend a player that's proven so difficult to scheme against?
One option that won't be used, according to Ellis Johnson, is assigning one player to "spy" on Gurley and follow him wherever he goes the entire game.
"There’s two or three ways to try to do it," Auburn's defensive coordinator said. "You could either load the box, put your wide outs on your DBs in coverage man-to-man or you can bring run blitzes, fire zone and run blitzes. We’ll probably have to try a little bit of everything."
Regardless of the defense he's faced in his three-year career, Gurley has found success. He's run for more than 100 yards in 17 of his 29 games with the Bulldogs, second-most in school history to only the legendary Herschel Walker's 28. Gurley also ranks third on the school's career list for rushing yards (3,147) and rushing touchdowns (35).
And he had gotten off to an outstanding start this fall prior to his suspension, ranking third nationally and tops in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards per game (154.6) six weeks into the season.
Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 226 pounds, he's a load for any defender to bring down alone.
"(We) just have to swarm on him," said Jonathon Mincy, Auburn's senior cornerback. "One person gets there, the rest of the team's got to fly around."
Gabe Wright remembers how physical Gurley has been the last two times the Bulldogs and Tigers squared off. In those two contests, Gurley combined to run for 195 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
"This is my third year going around and playing and each year he brings that mentality. He’s an every-down back in my opinion," said Wright, a senior defensive tackle. " ... I’m sure his health and energy will be amped up for this one.”
And Wright was glad Gurley returns this week, as the Carver alum enjoys competing against top-tier opponents.
"He’s a great player and he’s a guy that doesn't hold nothing back," Wright said. "I see him getting drafted early in the draft and if that’s what he chooses to do. He’s an excellent talent."
It's not just his size and tackle-breaking ability that make him so tough, however. Gurley also has world-class speed.
As a member of Georgia's track and field team in 2013, he finished the 60-meter hurdles with the seventh-fastest time (8:12) in school history. In high school, he won the 2011 World Youth Trials in the 110-meter hurdles (finishing in 13.88) and won the same event at the North Carolina high school state meet that year.
That's why, gifted as Gurley is running the ball, the Bulldogs have been able to take advantage of his skill set in other ways. He has 611 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 64 receptions in his career and averages 39 yards per return on kickoffs, including two scores — on just 10 returns.
In short, he's a big play waiting to happen.
"Gurley’s like a time bomb," Johnson said. "When is he going to get that 95-yard kickoff? When is he going to hit that 40-yard run? When is he going to catch that 35-yard screen pass? You got to be exactly right on him every time because he’s going either going to break the physical tackle or he’s going to out run the space tackle. He’s a specimen."
The biggest worry for Johnson, then, is that he might have his unit aligned perfectly or have his players take the correct angle on Gurley, only to see the dazzling tailback make something out of nothing. It would be frustrating, sure. Then again, Johnson knew it wouldn't be the first time Gurley flummoxed an opposing defense.
There was at least one person Johnson could recall that shut Gurley down, though.
"Nobody’s stopped him and some of them slowed him down a little bit," Johnson said. "The only guy that stopped him was the autograph guy."