For the second straight season, Mark Richt will be breaking in a new starting quarterback.
The Georgia Bulldogs are set to turn the keys of their offense over to redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, a highly-acclaimed recruit out of Plant High in Tampa, Fla. A year ago, the Bulldogs finished 8-5 under Joe Cox, who had played in just 13 games over three years before inheriting the starting position in 2009.
Cox was 185-of-331 passing for 2,584 yards, starting all 13 games. He threw 24 touchdown passes but also was intercepted 15 times. Logan
Gray, the only quarterback on the Bulldogs roster with any collegiate game experience, was 5-of-12 with two interceptions in limited duty.
The Bulldogs had 23 fumbles, losing 11, in 2009.
“We’ve got to get our young quarterback settled in pretty quick and have a healthy respect for the ball,” Richt said.
Behind Murray and Gray, the Bulldogs are thin at quarterback. After redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger was dismissed, the Bulldogs are down to Hutson Mason, the record-setting true freshman from Lassiter High near Marietta.
And that’s it. But the Bulldogs return all five starters on the offensive line, led by left tackle Clint Boling and center Ben Jones, and Georgia’s return to the running game late in the 2009 season may prove dividends.
The tandem of Caleb King and Washaun Ealey returns after Georgia struggled to find a running attack early in the 2009 campaign. Last year, the Bulldogs were held to under 100 yards rushing in four of their first six contests, going 3-3 in that stretch.
Ealey, after a standout career at Emanuel County Institute, played in just nine games in ’09 but ended up as the team’s leading rusher. He ran for 728 yards and three touchdowns while Caleb King ran for 616 yards and seven scores.
In the Bulldogs’ last two games, wins over in-state rival Georgia Tech and Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl, King and Ealey combined for 494 yards and four touchdowns.
Also back is two-time all-Southeastern Conference receiver A.J. Green, who had 808 yards and six touchdowns on 53 receptions a year ago. Kris Durham missed last season with a shoulder injury but had 13 catches in 2008. Tight end Orson Charles, Murray’s teammate at Plant, caught 23 passes for 374 yards and three TDs while Aron White was the bowl game MVP with two TD catches.
“Aaron needs to understand that he does not need to put the team on his back,” Richt said. “I think that’s the main thing. Young quarterbacks want to prove their worth. They want to prove they can make plays. He has to understand he has great players around him.”
Richt also wants his young quarterback to understand the situation around him and not turn a bad situation into something worse with a poor decision.
“It’s OK to throw the ball away. It’s OK to take the sack. It’s OK to punt once in a while,” he said.
Georgia opens the season at home Sept. 4 against Louisiana-Lafayette out of the Sun Belt Conference. The Ragin’ Cajuns were 6-6 last season.
After that, however, Murray’s learning curve steepens and sharpens with a trip to South Carolina, a home game against Arkansas and back-to-back road trips to Mississippi State and Colorado.
“My goal for him is to keep his confidence and start him at a level where he won’t get shook up,” Richt said. “I don’t want to get him to a position where we put too much on him, he fails and he regresses. And then we have to build him back up. Our goal is to start him at a really good comfort level, if we can.”
Richt also said he doesn’t want to burden his young quarterback with worrying about knowing every play in a thick playbook.
“I think it’s the volume of the plays in any game plan, we have to be careful of. We have to be smart not to have too much,” he said. “You give too much to a young kid, he’s staying up the night before studying like mad making sure he’s comfortable with it.”
But Murray also has an advantage David Greene and Matthew Stafford did not have, the coach said. He’s had two spring practices and a season of practices, while Greene had one spring practice before being named the starter. It’s even more time in the system than Stafford had before he was named the starter, Richt noted.
“Right now, Aaron’s got that luxury,” he said. “I think that will help him. But the bottom line is young quarterbacks make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. Hopefully, we can minimize them.”
The 10th year coach — only Vince Dooley and Wallace Butts will have coached the Bulldogs longer than Richt after this season — also wants improvements from other areas.
“I hope our punter, Drew Butler and our kicker, Blair Walsh, get better,” Richt said.
That might be hard to do — Butler was the Ray Guy Award winner as the nation’s top punter a year ago, averaging 48.1 yards a punt. Walsh was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after making 20 of 22 field goal attempts and all 42 extra point kicks.