ATLANTA (AP) — Todd Gurley was emerging as the clear favorite in the Heisman Trophy race, a running back who already produced plenty of signature moments with his myriad talents.
Now, it’s not known when — or if — Gurley will take another handoff for Georgia.
The star of the 13th-ranked Bulldogs was suspended indefinitely on Thursday while the school investigates an alleged violation of NCAA rules, a stunning blow for a team with championship aspirations and a player making a strong bid for college football’s top individual honor.
The announcement came less than 48 hours before Georgia (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) faced No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0) in a game that figures to have a huge impact on the Eastern Division race.
“I’m obviously very disappointed,” coach Mark Richt said in a statement. “The important thing for our team is to turn all our attention toward preparation for Missouri.”
School officials did not reveal the nature of their investigation, but SI.com, citing an anonymous source, reported that Gurley allegedly received $400 to sign 80 pieces of memorabilia on the Georgia campus this past spring — a familiar issue in college athletics.
The NCAA requires schools to declare players ineligible if they discover possible rules violations. They can apply for the player’s reinstatement after the investigation is completed, which happened in the past with stars such as Cam Newton.
The five wealthiest football conferences have been granted more autonomy with an eye toward increasing benefits for athletes. Among the proposals: covering the full cost of tuition, guaranteed multiyear scholarships, and long-term health care and insurance.
Some have called for athletes to actually be paid for their time on the field, saying it’s only fair since they help generate millions of dollars in revenue for their universities.
Shortly after Gurley’s suspension was announced, Georgia running back Keith Marshall cryptically tweeted, “Something has to change.”
Gurley leads the Bulldogs with 773 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. In addition, he has 11 receptions and a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD.
The junior established himself as a leading Heisman contender in the very first game of the season, setting a school record with 293 all-purpose yards in a victory over Clemson. There was also a hurdler-like leap over a Tennessee defender to pick up an extra 10 yards — a play that was shown repeatedly on national highlight shows. This past Saturday, the left-hander surprised Vanderbilt with a 50-yard pass, Georgia’s longest completion of the season.
The Bulldogs began the year with plenty of depth at running back, but that has taken a blow in recent weeks with injuries to Marshall and freshman sensation Sony Michel. Neither is expected to play against Missouri.
Now, Georgia is dealing with the toughest blow of all.
Gurley is simply irreplaceable, a dynamic mix of speed and power who allowed the Bulldogs to keep winning even with a mediocre passing game. He has accounted for more than half of the teams’ rushing yards, and his nine touchdowns represent nearly a third of Georgia’s 30 trips to the end zone.
Freshman Nick Chubb, who ranks second on the team with 234 yards rushing, will likely step in to start against Missouri. Sophomore Brendan Douglas is the only other back with significant experience, though former running back J.J. Green, who gained 384 yards last season, could move back over from defense to bolster depth in the backfield.
Without Gurley, the Bulldogs will surely have to get more from their passing game. Hutson Mason, a fifth-year senior, is averaging just 137.4 yards per game, though he could be helped by the return of speedy receiver Malcom Mitchell from an injury that kept him out the first four games.
NCAA rules violations often involve the acceptance of impermissible benefits, and the penalties have varied widely.
Former Georgia star receiver A.J. Green was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season after he acknowledged selling his Independence Bowl jersey to a former North Carolina player, who was regarded as an agent by the NCAA. Green had to repay $1,000 to charity and the suspension dampened his final season with the Bulldogs. He went on to become a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, was investigated before the 2013 season when reports surfaced that he had received money for signing autographs. The NCAA reached an agreement with the school for Manziel to sit out the first half of the opening game against Rice, with no finding that the player did anything wrong. He is now rookie backup with the Cleveland Browns.
Gurley, who battled injuries as a sophomore, was on pace for huge numbers in what was widely expected to be his final college season before entering the draft.
He had rushed for more than 100 yards in four games, the only exception being a blowout victory of Troy State in which he had 73 yards on just six carries. Gurley had a career-best 208 yards against Tennessee and was coming off a 163-yard, two-touchdown performance in last week’s victory over Vanderbilt.
“He’s been my Heisman choice since the season started,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said after the Tennessee game. “I’m pretty sure he’s about to put one heck of a campaign together.”
That campaign is on hold for now.
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