At 21 years young, Todd Gurley II may not yet be a household name in Los Angeles as of April, but come September, the running back for the Los Angeles Rams should be plastered across billboards, buildings and beaches. Also, he likes cats, so the internet should instantly fall in love with the powerful yet speedy running back.
For now, though, Gurley is a quiet, mellow 6-foot 1-inch runner that still thinks of himself as a rookie more than a star, let alone a superstar. Never mind, the former Georgia Bulldog rushed for 10 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards, which led to a Pro Bowl selection and Offensive Rookie of the Year honor for 2015. Previous winners of the award include Odell Beckham Jr., Eddie Lacy and Cam Newton.
LA may not know this kid just yet, but Gurley is a special talent that will take the city by storm in the fall, when the Rams turn up on televisions across Southern California.
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"I wouldn't say all that," Gurley laughed when NBCLA.com caught up with the running back and referred to him as the 'face of the franchise' in LA. "Hopefully, we keep winning...and hopefully, I can be the face of the Rams."
Gurley didn't exactly sound reluctant to accept the title, but he also didn't sound like an entitled superstar. In his mind, a strong rookie season did not automatically make him the face of the football franchise. He still had to earn his place in the team. However, the Rams hold the no. 1 pick and widely expect to take a quarterback, so there may be two faces of the franchise come Week 1. Still, Gurley did not sound like his first season had inflated his ego in the slightest.
Why the humble demeanor?
Well, Gurley tore his ACL in 2014, and his fight back from knee injury calmed the player's nerves and brought about a special type of focus.
"You know, all that other stuff is just out of the way," Gurley says about his return from the serious knee injury. "You want to go first round. You want to be a high draft pick. But your main focus is just to get back on the field and come back from an injury and prove to yourself and everybody that you can overcome the injury."
So, was a thousand-yard season a goal to prove the doubters wrong?
"No, man," the running back laughs. "I was just trying to get back on the field."
Gurley shared that he never truly recognized his ascendency to the NFL level until he lined up against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. Particularly, rushing for 159 yards against players like Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, "Ha-Ha" Clinton-Dix and B.J. Raji allowed the 21-year-old to acknowledge that he could play on the same field as Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers. Also, having grown up in North Carolina, playing against state-legend Peppers helped register the reality for the rookie.
In the following game, Gurley took off his knee brace for the first time since joining the NFL and rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Gurley would eventually end the season wearing the brace, but he explained that he put it on as a mental security blanket after already proving to himself that he doesn't require the added support.
"I'd rather be safe than sorry," Gurley explains with a smile. "It's a long season. My teammates were like, 'Hell yea, you better put it back on.'"
By the end of the season, the rookie was not merely playing against Pro Bowlers; he became a Pro Bowler. Gurley was one of three rookies selected, along with cornerback Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs and return specialist Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks.
Whether or not he chooses to grab the mantle publicly, Gurley's play on the field will elevate him to being one of the faces, if not the face of the LA Rams when the season gets underway and Los Angeles pays attention to its football team. In LA, the marketing opportunities should continue to flow in as the running back gains notoriety with every rushing yard.
After all, the Rams' running back met with NBCLA.com at Treyarch Studios on Monday. In Santa Monica, Gurley played in a series of promotional Call of Duty Black Ops3 matches against Matt Forte of the New York Jets, as each player had three professional teammates. Gurley quickly pointed out that his team won the event designed to publicize new maps and downloadable software for the video game giant. The team battles had been streamed live on the internet and thousands had tuned in to watch online.
A promotional opportunity like this, where one of the largest video game studios on the planet contacted him to promote content, likely would not have come about in St. Louis. Gurley acknowledged the marketing benefits of moving to LA and referenced Call of Duty as a prime example, but he didn't appear enchanted by the riches, nor did he appear bothered by the added pressure of performing in a big market. Instead, the self-described home body offered rather straightforward goals for his first season in LA and his second season in the NFL.
"The goal is definitely to be the no. 1 rusher. That should be everybody's goal." Gurley says. "Just make plays and try to get to the playoffs because there're guys on my team that have been playing for eight, nine years and never even been to the playoffs."
Gurley adds, "At the end of the day, it's kind of like, 'What are you playing for?' You definitely want to achieve that (playoffs)."
While the LA Rams may not be Super Bowl favorites, Gurley's natural talent and humble, hardworking demeanor ensure that the Rams should be competitive. In their final season in St. Louis, the Rams finished with a respectable mark of 7-9 season. If they can display improvement and add a couple pieces in the draft, a winning record and a trip to the postseason hardly seems far fetched.
In LA to start the 2016 season, the Rams' talent expects to shine brighter than it does in most cities. As a beneficiary of the relocation on multiple levels, Gurley is certainly not complaining about arriving in Southern California.
Asked about the move from St. Louis to LA, Gurley shares, "I actually wanted to move out here later down the road—like on my second contract and get a house here...I came out here three, four times the year before. I was like, 'Man, I can do this.'"
Gurley adds, "There's something about being out here. The vibe is cool."