Super Bowl LIII starting running backs Sony Michel, Todd Gurley have more in common than you think


Not many people in America will be rooting for both the Patriots and Rams in Super Bowl LIII, but there will be at least one — Bryan McClendon.

McClendon was the person who recruited both Todd Gurley and Sony Michel at the University of Georgia. 

Currently, he’s the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at the University of South Carolina, but he was the running backs coach for Georgia from 2009-13 before becoming the recruiting coordinator until departing for South Carolina in 2016.

“I was kind of the one to recruit them,” he said via phone Wednesday. “Went to their houses, developed relationships not with just with them, but everyone in the family and everything that kind of went along with it. I coached them, too. 

"I was the only coach Todd ever had in college and I kind of moved around after Sony’s freshman year. I recruited them for multiple years and then was able to coach them and bring them into the college game. I was very blessed to do that.”

The two were a little different going into Georgia, but both were extremely talented.

“The one thing I remember [about Todd] is really my first conversation with him,” McClendon said. “It was how humble he was, how he really had no idea the stage he was about to step on even at the college level. It was really, really interesting to not just recruit him, but educate him on the steps he was going to take.”

Meanwhile, Michel seemed to have a little more maturity at the time and was ready to work.

“One of the things that really stood out to me with Sony was we just clicked from the very first time we ever met,” he said. “Sony was getting recruited since he was in eighth grade, really. He had seen it all and heard it all and everything else. I was rolling in there and just being me, but we hit it off from the very beginning. 

“It really stood out to me with just how hungry this kid wanted to be and how hungry he was to be great. He wants to be pushed, he wants to be coached. He wants to be as good as he possibly can be. He’ll let you do it. He will let you come to him and correct him and everything else.”

Gurley was at Georgia from 2012-14 before skipping his senior season and entering the 2015 NFL draft. His best year came as a freshman, as in 14 games he had 222 carries for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was suspended for violating NCAA rules in 2014 and then in one of his first games back he tore his ACL. That was the last game he played at Georgia.

As a true freshman, Michel was on Gurley's 2014 team, but he missed five games due to a shoulder injury. He and Nick Chubb then shared the backfield the next three seasons, and his best year came as a senior when he had 1,227 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.

Overall, Michel (3,369 yards) and Gurley (3,285 yards) rank No. 3 and 4 on Georgia’s all-time rushing list.

On the field, McClendon didn’t really see much difference in the two, as they were two athletic players who knew how to make plays.

“Both of those guys are really, really talented with the ball in their hands,” he said. “Both of those guys do a really great job of being able to see and set defenses up when they have the ball. Both of those guys are multi-faceted in the sense of they are just not a one-trick pony. You don’t just line up and give them the ball one way, one style. They can run it, they can be incorporated in the screen game and both of those guys can be used as a receiver. 

“They are a lot more similar than they are different as far as style wise.”

With Michel following Gurley, McClendon could have tried to have him model himself after him, but he didn’t want to do that. He wanted both players to be themselves.

“The biggest thing with both of them was when Todd came in I wanted him to be the best Todd Gurley. When Sony came in, I didn’t want him to be the next Gurley, I wanted him to be the best Sony Michel he could be. That was how we went about it," he said. "Both of those guys know you get what you earn and I was very fortunate to have a very talented running backs room.”

Now, just under four years after McClendon left Georgia, two of the best players he ever coached will be going head-to-head in Super Bowl LIII. And both will play significant roles since they each led their respective teams in rushing this season. 

This will make for an unusual experience watching the game, but he certainly won’t mind.

“I’ll tell you, there are very few times where you want both teams to do well,” McClendon said. “You’re normally in a situation where you want one team to do well, but this week it really doesn’t matter. I hope both of them have a good game, approach the game the right way and lay it all on the line for their teammates, which I know they will.

“It’s unbelievable. I don’t know when I will ever be able to say that again, that I coached and recruited the starting tailbacks in the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty special thing to be able to do.”