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TARA SULLIVAN

One Georgia backfield sprouted two Super Bowl running backs

Sony Michel was part of a proud tradition of standout running backs at Georgia.
Sony Michel was part of a proud tradition of standout running backs at Georgia.(todd kirkland/Getty)

ATLANTA — The way Bryan McClendon remembers it, Todd Gurley was the guy who came in to stabilize the running back room. A highly regarded recruit ready to replace another who’d gotten himself kicked out of school.

He was the freshman who would come in and take his turn in the long lineup of great Georgia backs. And McClendon would know; as the running backs coach responsible for recruiting Gurley, he made a living identifying talent. He knew Gurley was a difference-maker.

Yet it was what McClendon watched his prized player do two years later, as a junior for the Bulldogs, that is the enduring reminder of what made Gurley so valuable.

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When Gurley swung open the door to that room for two equally heralded freshmen coming in to join him. When he was so willing to share his insights, his friendship, his leadership, and ultimately his playing time with a couple of kids who just as easily could have been perceived as threats, well, perhaps you understand why McClendon might be the only person in America completely unsurprised by the unique tailback matchup in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“I’m just tickled to death to see it,” said McClendon, now the offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach at South Carolina. “I’ve never had a game where I didn’t want either of the teams to do bad. I want both teams to do well.”

Related: A reporter from Boston and one from LA discuss the Super Bowl.

Gurley for the Rams. Sony Michel for the Patriots. Two former college teammates starting in the Super Bowl, a testament not only to their individual talents but to the lineage of the one school with the strongest claim on the title of ‘Running Back U.’

Somewhere out in the football audience on Sunday will be Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns, the third guy in that running back room during the 2014 season. Three Georgia teammates, two of whom will face each other for an NFL title, all of whom managed to share the same field for a season, and each of them better for it.

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Gurley was the incumbent, but forced to sit four games because of an NCAA ruling over selling merchandise. Michel was the initial breakout freshman, but forced to sit with an injury. Chubb would step in and end up gaining the most yards of all.

“They handled it just as you think they would — they’re team-first guys,” McClendon said. “That’s what the game of football is; it’s about the other people, not about yourself. Todd was always about being there for both Sony and Nick in any way.”

Gurley (as a junior) and Michel (a freshman) chest-bump during a game against South Carolina in 2014.
Gurley (as a junior) and Michel (a freshman) chest-bump during a game against South Carolina in 2014.(AP file)

That they would end up on the same championship field says plenty about a college program that also produced the likes of Herschel Walker, Terrell Davis, and Knowshon Moreno. But really, it’s a reminder of how much the college experience creates bonds different from any other we have in life.

You grow up together in college, eat meals together, sift through laundry piles, and survive study hall. It’s why opponents on the field will still say things about each other like, “We’re still brothers” (Gurley) and “We’ll always be close. You’re a Bulldog, you’re a Bulldog forever. We’re always going to be boys” (Michel).

And why you can be boys who have a little fun at each other’s expense, too.

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“I taught him everything he knows — that’s why he’s in the Super Bowl now,” Gurley said Monday during the zaniness of Opening Night. “Obviously I taught him a little bit too much. He had a little bit of talent on his own, but I taught him a couple things.”

Talent was never an issue. No matter who lined up in the backfield, the senior who was lined up at center expected some yards to be gained. David Andrews, now one of the captains for the Patriots, closed out his Georgia career blocking for all three. He said it didn’t really matter which guy had the ball.

“All we knew is we give ’em space, you’re going to look up and see a No. 1, 27, or a 3,” he said.

Not a whole lot has changed. Gurley may have been largely dormant in the Rams’ NFC Championship victory over the Saints, likely slowed by lingering injuries, but he insisted this week he feels better than ever.

And Michel? He has five touchdowns already this postseason, most by any rookie in NFL history.

“We were kidding about it a couple weeks ago with Sony, that whatever they feed you guys down there in Georgia, can we get some of it?” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “They’ve been doing a great job with those guys down in Georgia and we’re privileged to have one of them with us.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.

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