Over the years Georgia has hardly been on the minds of pass-happy high school quarterbacks looking for a college where they could put together the gaudy numbers necessary to impress the NFL. During the 25-year reign of coach Vince Dooley, who retired after the 1988 season, the Bulldogs relied on kicking, their junkyard-Dawg defense and a relentless ground attack that showcased splendid tailbacks, most notably 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. Today, however, if you are looking for the most precocious quarterback in the college game, toss away your road maps to such places as Provo, Utah, and Miami and head for Athens, Ga., where, as Ray Charles might put it, the Bulldogs have the right one, baby, in sophomore-to-be Eric Zeier. Uh-huh, uh-huh.
How radically have things changed tween the hedges in Georgia's Sanford Stadium? Going into last season half the school's passing records were owned by Zeke Bratkowski, who wore the trademark "silver britches" in the 1950s. Then along came Zeier, and there went the record book. The young man from Marietta, Ga.. became the starter as a true freshman against Mississippi in the sixth game of the year. By the time he finished leading the Dawgs to a 9-3 record—including a 24-15 win over Arkansas in the Independence Bowl—he owned the season marks for passing yardage (1,984), completions (159) and attempts (286).
Even Dooley, who is now Georgia's athletic director, admits he has been charmed by Zeier and the new-look Dawgs. What really warms Dooley's heart is that Zeier is so poised that he threw only four interceptions in 1991, setting an SEC record for lowest interception percentage in a season. Says Dooley, "I've never seen a better quarterback at this stage of his career. Never."
Oh, my. If Mr. Conservative is talking like this, you can imagine the conversations taking place among students, alumni and boosters. By April 18, when Georgia held its annual spring intrasquad game, optimism was as thick and sweet as the smell of honeysuckle. Around Athens there is talk of another championship—and not just the conference championship. Why not? Besides Zeier, the Bulldogs have two potential first-round NFL draft picks in juniors-to-be Andre Hastings, a slick wideout whose 48 receptions last fall set a school record, and Garrison Hearst, a slashing tailback who lacks Walker's power but has his ability to burst through openings.
On defense Dooley's successor, Ray Goff, has brought in six junior college transfers to plug up holes at inside linebacker and in the secondary. Their arrival indicates that Goff understands how the NFL has forced college coaches to change their thinking. With the pros now picking off many of the best juniors, and sometimes even sophomores, a coach no longer has the luxury of regarding a team as being a year or two away. The future is now, pal, and you had better get used to it.
"You're darn right it's changed," says Goff. "We've got some juniors-to-be who are pretty good football players. But how much longer are they going to stay?" Indeed, Georgia lost three tailbacks. Walker (1983), Tim Worley ('89) and Rodney Hampton ('90), to the NFL before their eligibility expired.
Only 33 when he took over for Dooley, Goff got off to a shaky start. A 6-6 rookie season was followed by a 4-7 finish in 1990, Georgia's worst record since 1963. Goff responded by asking three assistants to resign, including veteran offensive coordinator George Haffner, so that he could install a more wide-open offense. The men he brought in as replacements, especially offensive coordinator Wayne McDuffie, who crafted Bobby Bowden's high-octane attack at Florida State from 1983 to '89, sent the message to recruits that a new era was dawning in Athens. "I figured they were sincere about changing the offense when they recruited me." says Hastings, who chose Georgia over Notre Dame and Florida State after an agonizing recruiting process (SI, Feb. 26, 1990). "Why would you buy a Mercedes if you didn't plan on driving it?"
But the pieces didn't all fall into place until Zeier joined the Bulldogs. An excellent student, during his final semester at Marietta High he entered a "joint enrollment" program at Georgia so that he could go through winter conditioning and spring practice with the returning players. As a result both Georgia and Zeier's parents were criticized for placing football above Eric's social development.
"It was completely my decision," says Zeier. "Football is the thing I love most, not the senior prom or spring break or the class cruise. I looked at it not as missing out, but as gaining a lot. When I came to Georgia early and got up at 6 a.m. to run and work with the other guys, I think I earned their respect, because that's the hard part of the season."
Besides, what's the big deal about doing normal stuff when you've already gone to a prom at the castle in Heidelberg. Germany? Or when you've played two football games at Nuremberg's Soldier Field? Germany was one of many places that Zeier lived while growing up in a military family. Army major Rick Zeier, who had coached his son in baseball, soccer and American football, decided after Eric's sophomore year in high school to request a transfer to the Atlanta area so that Eric could play football in a top high school program. Major Zeier sent Eric's game tapes to four high schools. After watching one tape for 10 minutes, a Marietta assistant went to coach Dexter Wood and said. "You better come see this."