TWO DAYS AFTER GEORGIA LOST 10--6 TO CENTRAL FLORIDA IN THE 2011 LIBERTY BOWL, Bulldogs offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo summoned Aaron Murray to his office. Murray had just completed an impressive redshirt freshman season, displaying a lively, accurate arm while throwing for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns with eight interceptions. But now Bobo wanted more.
"This is your team," Bobo told Murray. "You've proven you have what it takes to get the job done. Now it's time to go to another level. Now it's time for you to lead us."
Murray has taken those words to heart. This off-season he gained 10 pounds of muscle, and despite his youth (he doesn't turn 21 until Nov. 10), he was as vocal as any player during spring practice.
"Aaron is coming of age," says coach Mark Richt. "He's lived a year under center, and he knows what the speed of the game is like. He'll throw more balls from inside the pocket this year because he's more confident. Last year when he wasn't sure where to go, he ran, but now he knows exactly where the ball needs to be and how quickly it needs to be there. Plus his deep-ball touch is really improving. As a coach it really makes you feel good to have a young quarterback who is as talented as Aaron."
Coming out of Plant High in Tampa, the 6' 1", 211-pound Murray received scholarship offers from more than 50 FBS programs. Rated as the No. 3 quarterback in the country by Scout.com, Murray visited Georgia for its game against Alabama on Sept. 27, 2008. It wasn't even close: The Tide took a 31--0 lead and hammered the Bulldogs 41--30. "Georgia got their butt spanked, but I fell in love with the campus and the people here," Murray says. "It really was an easy decision."
Last season Murray had the luxury of throwing to wide receiver A.J. Green, who left school early for the NFL draft. Hours after Murray learned that Green wouldn't be back in 2011, he received a text from receiver Tavarres King: Tell coach I want to take A.J.'s spot.
"I loved reading that because it showed that Tavarres wants to be great," says Murray. "We're going to have tons of weapons on offense. I think we've got the best tight end in the country [Orson Charles], and our running game will be strong. Plus I've got so much more confidence. It's night and day."
Will Murray be the top quarterback in the SEC this season? Richt and Bobo believe so. They point to several factors why: He has the arm strength to make every throw; he's remarkably tough (in high school he came back from a broken leg and dislocated ankle several weeks early to lead his team to a state championship in 2008); and he should be better protected in '11 because the Georgia offensive line, which gave up 25 sacks last year, showed signs of improvement this spring under new line coach Will Friend.
"Aaron can pick apart any defense if he has the time," says Richt. "I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
So is everyone in Athens. Just as they had in Matthew Stafford three years ago, the Bulldogs may once again have a golden-armed quarterback capable of carrying the program.