Mark Richt 'wouldn't be shocked' if Todd Gurley returns to All-Pro form

Former UGA coach Mark Richt and Todd Gurley's college teammates discuss why they think if used right, the three-time Pro Bowler can be successful in Atlanta

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Before Todd Gurley touched the ball for the very first time in a Georgia uniform – which just happened to be a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bulls in 2012 – you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought he would go on to be one of the greatest players in Bulldogs football history.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Gurley is back in the Peach State and set to prove yet again he is still that same type of player as he begins the second stint of his professional career with the Atlanta Falcons.

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A four-star recruit, Gurley was expected to split the load at Georgia with Keith Marshall, a heavily recruited five-star prospect out of Raleigh, N.C. In fact, Mark Richt, Georgia's head coach for 15 years, envisioned a backfield that featured a heavy dose of Marshall with Gurley adding a few touches here and there.

After that kickoff return against Buffalo, everything changed.

"It didn't take long for him to become one of, if not, the best player on the team," Richt said.

In three seasons at Georgia, Gurley rushed for 3,285 yards and 36 touchdowns. Gurley proved that it doesn't matter where on the depth chart you start. It's about what you do with the opportunities you're given.

"When one of your best players on the team is one of your hardest workers, it makes a difference with the rest of the group," Richt said.

Former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, who played with Gurley in college during the 2013-14 seasons, was someone who followed by the example Gurley set.

"You've got this superstar, but he's got a work ethic like he's a nobody almost," Mason said.

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No matter what Gurley has accomplished in his career, he's always looking for more.

After his decorated career at Georgia, Gurley was the first running back selected and the 10th-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Many Georgia fans hoped the Falcons would keep Gurley in state, but the team went in a different direction, selecting Clemson star Vic Beasley Jr. with the No. 8 overall pick.

Five years later, those Bulldogs fans are finally getting their wish. With a need for a No. 1 running back, the Falcons signed Gurley to a one-year deal worth a reported $6 million this offseason.

It's not an exaggeration when saying Gurley's acquisition is easily Thomas Dimitroff's most popular offseason signing as Falcons general manager.

"When they first signed him, I was thinking, 'How many Gurley No. 3 UGA jerseys are we going to see at Falcons games?'" Mason said. "I was expecting to see quite a bit. People pulling out their old jerseys thinking they'll never have an excuse to wear it again."

Gurley was looking for a fresh start and the Falcons welcomed him with open arms. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is known as someone who is beloved by his players because for how personable he is.

And this is another reason why the pairing of Gurley and the Falcons seems to be one that could be favorable for both parties.

"If he knows you care about him as a person, there's not much he wouldn't do for you," Richt said.

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Although Gurley hasn't spent much time in person with Quinn, he knows the environment he'll be in this season will set him up for success.

"One thing about coaches, if players don't like them, you'll hear about it," Gurley said. "I haven't heard anything bad about him. It just kind of tells you what type of guy he is. I didn't really have to meet him or talk to him to get a gist of who he is."

Amid health concerns, the Los Angeles Rams released Gurley after five seasons with the franchise. While many have speculated that his knee could be a lingering issue, Gurley said earlier this offseason that he believes he can still produce at a high level.

Not much was expected from Gurley when he first got to Georgia given all of the praise Marshall received heading into their first season in Athens. Now, the 26-year-old finds himself in a similar situation with plenty of people questioning what he will be for the Falcons.

Gurley isn't listening to the outside noise as he's done his whole career. He's solely focused on being the best version of himself in hopes his work will silence the doubters.

"I would not be shocked to see him end up being All-Pro again if used the right way," Richt said.

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Gurley earned All-Pro honors following the 2017 and 2018 seasons after leading the league in rushing touchdowns — 13 and 17, respectively. He was also named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year after running for 1,305 yards in 2017. 

There's no question about the type of offensive weapon Gurley can be when healthy. The hesitation, for now, lies solely in his workload and what that will look like.

"When it comes to football, he's as talented as anyone you've ever seen," Marshall said of his roommate and teammate of three years.

Regardless if it's 20 carries a game or less, there's one area Gurley can immediately help the Falcons — the red zone. Atlanta ranked No. 25 in red zone scoring (51.7 percent) in 2019. The Falcons had nine totalrushing touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. All 12 of Gurley's touchdowns last season were in the red zone, with 11 coming from inside the 10-yard line.

The Falcons are hoping Gurley's impact isn't limited to the red zone, but there's no denying it's certainly a step in the right direction to fix an area of weakness. Gurley is ready to prove himself again.

This time, he will get to do so in front of many fans who once witnessed his greatness down the road in Athens.  

"I'm excited to see what he's going to do in Atlanta," Marshall said. "I think it will be great for the city, I think it will be great for him to get a resurgence. I'm excited to see what happens."

We are counting down the top 10 Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.

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