Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Georgia sophomore Aaron Murray.
• Typecasting. Unless you had a program and depth chart for easy reference, you probably wouldn't pick Murray out of the locker room or pregame warmups as a starting quarterback in the SEC: He's not particularly big (he's officially listed at 6-1, 209 pounds), not blindingly fast and not about to tear the gloves off his receivers' hands with any throws. He has average size, decent speed and an OK arm.
Add it up, though, along with good mechanics, a good head and an intangible feel for the game that makes an otherwise average-looking Sig Ep an athlete, man, and you have the most promising young starter in the SEC. In fact, with prototypical behemoths Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett moving on to the NFL, Murray entered with more recruiting hype – he was MVP at the "Elite 11" quarterback camp, a Parade and U.S. Army All-American, and a top-50 overall prospect by every major scouting service in 2009 – than any other starting quarterback in the conference, a distinction he seems more than likely to justify in his second season as a starter.
• At his best... Murray got more airtime in 2010 as Nick Fairley's personal punching bag in a 49-31 loss to Auburn than as a breakout passer, which is understandable for a redshirt freshman whose team opened 1-4 in a conference that also featured a) The eventual Heisman Trophy winner, b) Another future first-round draft pick and c) A would-be Rhodes scholar with a BCS championship ring at the same position, all for teams that spent nearly the entire season in the top 15 of the national polls. But Murray held his own statistically, completing upwards of 60 percent of his passes with highest efficiency rating in the country for a freshman.
Because of his size, penchant for play-action and mobility, Murray is generally relegated to the "game manager" category, which is unfair to his production as a downfield passer: He tied Ryan Mallett for the SEC lead and finished in the top 10 nationally with 35 completions covering at least 25 yards, and finished second only to Cam Newton for the best yards-per-completion average in the conference. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo clearly was not afraid to let Murray put it up 40 to 50 yards downfield:
If that seems like high praise for a guy at the helm of Georgia's first losing season in 15 years, consider that Murray was generally pretty good even when the team was bad: He passed for at least 250 yards with an efficiency rating of at least 130 (a hair above the national average) in four of the Bulldogs' six regular season losses, and delivered three touchdown passes in each of the high-scoring defeats against Colorado, Florida and Auburn. Consider also that the UGA defense allowed 30.6 points per game in those six losses, while the offense scored at least 24 in four of them.
• At his worst... It's no coincidence that Georgia's fortunes changed with the return of spectacular receiver A.J. Green from a four-game suspension that cost him the entire month of September. Before his return, the Bulldogs averaged 14 points over the course of a three-game losing streak in their first three SEC games; after, they averaged slightly over 35 points in the process of going 5-3 over their last eight, including 40-point outbursts against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia Tech. That crutch is long gone, and while juniors-to-be Tavarres King and Orson Charles are reliable enough targets, they're not going to do anything like this to bring in a jump ball – with Green, Murray could sometimes get away with "in the vicinity," but the margin of error narrows considerably anytime a playmaker of Green's caliber (not to mention three starting offensive linemen) leaves the vicinity.
The other blaring red siren is the embarrassing, 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida, which played out like a slow-motion, three-hour car crash. Murray hit the wall personally with two interceptions, zero touchdowns, only one completion covering more than 20 yards and a meager 88.5 efficiency rating – the first time all season he finished with a rating below 130. It was his only truly bad game, but coming as it did on the heels his best game – a 15-of-19, 272-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 42-34 win over Georgia Tech – it was a mystifying regression.
• Fun Fact. Murray's older brother, Josh, also joined the team in 2009, seven years after he was drafted straight out of high school by the Milwaukee Brewers. Josh, a walk-on safety who saw the field last year in garbage time of blowout wins over Vanderbilt and Idaho State, will turn 27 in August, making him the oldest player in the SEC. The youngest Murray sibling, Stephanie, is also a player back in Tampa: She was quarterback of Plant High's flag football team for girls, which, as a sanctioned sport under the Florida High School Athletic Association, ain't for no powder puffs, a'ight? (And anyway, if you're going to make fun of the sporting pursuits of any of the Murrays, it's Aaron, for spraining his ankle in a pick-up soccer game last week.)
• What to expect in the fall. The Bulldogs' slow start ensured some degree of anonymity nationally, but Murray's debut was as good on paper as anyone's this side of Cam Newton: If he puts up identical numbers – 3,000 yards, 24 touchdowns, 154.5 efficiency rating – this fall, he'll be first-team All-SEC in a less QB-dominated league and well on his way to smashing all of Georgia's career passing records.
The two looming questions are a) Can he put up the same numbers without A.J. Green on the other end of eight to twelve passes per game, and b) Will the same stats be worth any more wins in a make-or-break year for head coach Mark Richt? The first number may depend on the starting cast: Will King and Charles step into the void at receiver? Will incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell provide the consistent rushing threat that's been glaringly absent the last two years? Will a retooled offensive line keep Murray comfortable in the pocket? The second may depend on the progress of the defense, which didn't improve at all in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham.
But whatever the Bulldogs' larger issues, quarterback isn't likely to be one of them. Murray may not belong on any All-America lists at this phase of his career – in fact, in lieu of any single, mind-blowing quality that might send him flying up draft boards in another year or two, he seems like the type of quarterback who finds his stride early and rides that steady pace to the end. Based on the pace he set in his first season, though, he'd still get my vote as the best quarterback in the SEC going into the second.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.