Georgia’s Field General
By BJ Bennett
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Even with his gaudy numbers, Aaron Murray's importance to his program is hard to measure.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the SEC in interceptions with 14 last season. He had a lower completion percentage than Mississippi State's Chris Relf, a noted dual-threat signal caller. He threw a pair of interceptions apiece in the Bulldogs' final two outings : the SEC Championship Game against LSU and the Capital One Bowl versus Michigan State. In some statistical categories, Murray regressed from his freshman to sophomore year. That, and he is now poised to become one of the leading names in all of college football.
Murray's best attribute isn't his arm, his legs, nor his on-field savvy. It's his moxie. The now battle-tested upperclassman has started 27 career games and is the unquestioned leader of a Georgia football team that has national aspirations. Entering his third year as starter in Athens, he will begin this fall as one of the faces of the game's most powerful conference. Such a distinction may only be the beginning.
His introduction to big-time college football was a veritable baptism-by-fire. What was already expected to be a trying freshman season was compounded by the suspension of All-American wide receiver A.J. Green for the first third of the regular season -- and an ensuing 1-4 start. As tensions mounted, along with pressure on head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a raw and inexperienced Murray stood square in the spotlight. Despite his youth, he proved to be one of the strands that helped hold the team together. He finished year one with over 3,000 yards passing, a 61% completion rate, 28 total touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
"Hats off to Murray for stepping up and making the plays with our defenders in his face," acknowledged Georgia Tech defensive back Mario Butler after the UGA quarterback threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-34 Bulldog victory.
After another tough start, one where Murray passed for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns compared to just two interceptions, losses to Boise State and South Carolina to open the 2011 season only furthered the concerns in the Peach State. Richt, Bobo, all parties involved, had their backs against the wall as Georgia prepared to host Coastal Carolina prior to the start of league play. Murray, and his teammates, responded. The Bulldogs rallied to win ten consecutive games, ultimately winning the SEC East. Wins over rivals Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech proved to be revitalizing for the program.
Down the stretch, from mid-October on, Murray was key in setting the tone. Over the final eight games of the year, he would threw 22 touchdowns compared to only eight interceptions. With the offensive line and running game sometimes struggling with consistency, Murray was turned to for production. He finished the season with a new school record for passing touchdowns in a single season with 35, torching the old mark set by the 2009 number one overall draft pick Matt Stafford. Southern Cal's Matt Barkley, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Stanford's Andrew Luck were the only BCS Conference quarterbacks to top Murray's touchdown mark. Even with his gaudy numbers, Murray's importance to his program is hard to measure.
Georgia prepares for the start of the 2012 season with top five expectations. Murray is a big reason why. He's fresh off a sweep of the school's archrivals, a ten-game mid-season winning streak and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. He is the heart and soul of a football team that has had to fight for everything they have earned in recent years. Murray has led the Bulldogs through difficult times; national prominence may very well be where he takes them next.