Rams’ Todd Gurley the next big thing in Southern California sports

Rams’ Todd Gurley the next big thing in Southern California sports

OXNARD – If, as the saying goes, stars are made, not born, what about those who are relocated?

Todd Gurley is poised to be the next big thing in Southern California sports. The Rams running back still might go unrecognized walking down local streets, particularly when his trademark shoulder-length dreadlocks are pulled back, but given his recent face time on national TV, that seems certain to change.

“Carl’s Jr.,’’ teammate Benny Cunningham said with a wry grin after a recent practice. “That’s his new nickname. You should call him that. He will like that.’’

Gurley has received copious good-natured ribbing for his role as as a burger-pitcher. In the commercial, Gurley – who speaks only a few words – is greeted by an agent and selfie-taking admirers as he coolly strolls through an office while wearing a hat with a generic “L.A.” logo.

“Welcome to California, Todd Gurley,’’ shouts the agent, played by actor/comedian Jay Mohr.

And welcome, perhaps, to a void that needs to be filled, that of major Southern California sports icon.

Kobe Bryant has retired after an iconic 20-year career with the Lakers. Clayton Kershaw arguably is the best pitcher in baseball, but many viewers can’t even watch Dodgers games. The Angels’ Mike Trout is highly marketable but seems reticent to display charisma in a public way. The top players for the Kings and Ducks are more likely to pitch products in Canada.

Chris Paul is a contender, but at best he’s a very good player on a good Clippers team, and that franchise still is attempting to dribble out of the Lakers’ shadow.

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The throne has been vacated, and Gurley can fill it. He’s telegenic, intelligent, community-minded and is coming off a 2015 rookie season in which he rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL (1,106).

It also doesn’t hurt that Gurley is represented by Roc Nation Sports, the agency founded by music star Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.

“The region is looking for someone to embrace,’’ said David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, “and not only because football is back but because Kobe Bryant’s presence will be diminished. And as long as the Dodgers struggle to get their bearings on TV, their stars will not have as constant a light shone on them. All of this makes his timing ideal.’’

There’s only one question: is this market ready to accept Gurley as a hometown hero? As of now, three months before the start of the NFL season, Gurley remains an outsider, and something of a quiet one.

Bryant arrived as a teenager and grew up here. Shaquille O’Neal and Manny Ramirez were imported, but announced their arrivals with boisterous enthusiasm. Gurley? He’s been placed gently on Southern California’s porch like a FedEx package from St. Louis. The locals are just beginning to unwrap him.

It’s a slow roll-out. At first glance, Gurley, only 21, certainly doesn’t scream “Hollywood.’’ In public and interview settings, he is good-natured but quiet. His social-media postings don’t reveal much, and his next inflammatory or self-congratulatory quote will be his first.

This doesn’t surprise those who know Gurley well.

“He’s very intelligent, and he’s never going to fly off the handle,’’ said Bryan McClendon, Gurley’s running backs coach for three years at Georgia. “He puts thought into everything he does, and he definitely thinks before he talks and acts.’’

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In the next breath, though, McClendon describes Gurley as “almost too silly at times,” at least among those with whom he feels comfortable. Clearly there’s another side to Gurley. When will Los Angeles see it?

This is a Maryland native who became revered in Georgia, a chameleon who counts country singer Luke Bryan and rapper Waka Flocka among his friends. Gurley is the focal point of the Rams’ offense, and at least until rookie quarterback Jared Goff develops, the face of the franchise.

Yet rarely is Gurley’s the team’s most prominent voice.

“I just kind of do my game,’’ Gurley said. “I feel like sometimes I can be a natural leader more in terms of being in the weight room, working hard. Guys see that and they feed off of that. So, basically what I’m doing is not doing anything extra and making sure I’m holding myself accountable as well as my teammates.’’

There’s a quiet, steely confidence that is almost Bryant-like.

Some NFL pundits mocked the Rams when they used the No. 10 overall draft pick on Gurley in 2015, five months after he suffered a torn ACL. As a rookie, Gurley not only earned the starting job but finished behind only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin for most rushing yards.

There was no bragging and no I-told-you-so from Gurley. At OTA practices this month, Gurley has talked only of improving and seems far more comfortable praising others than himself.

“When he first came in, he kind of kept to himself, but that’s how it is with everybody,’’ fellow Rams running back Cunningham said. “Once they get comfortable around the guys, you kind of see the true personality come out. He will let you all catch that one day. Hopefully you guys will catch the real Todd.’’

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It’s there. Last year, Gurley filmed a candy commercial in which he wore a tutu and sang, “I’m A Little Teapot.” Gurley, quietly, has been a fixture at Rams community events over the past couple months. He might not yet be showing that Hollywood sizzle, but it’s early.

Gurley recently dropped the veil a bit. Asked, at the end of a relatively bland interview, to review the burger he endorsed in the commercial, Gurley raised his voice and perked up considerably.

“The burger was excellent. Go get one,” Gurley said, then added with a big grin, “There’s (a restaurant) right up the street, so I don’t want to hear any excuses.’’

Contact the writer: rhammond@ocregister.com