ATHENS — Zach Mettenberger was at Wal-Mart buying a TV with a friend when he got the call.
The quarterback from Watkinsville had spent most of his life dreaming of playing for Georgia, the team just down the road he had grown up watching. So when head coach Mark Richt finally offered him a scholarship, Mettenberger couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
“I was in Wal-Mart jumping around,” Mettenberger said. “People were just looking at me like, ‘What is that kid’s problem?’ ”
For Aaron Murray, the situation was a bit different.
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Murray was a five-star recruit from Tampa, Fla. — a quarterback almost every school wanted. A scholarship offer from Richt was already on the table, but most of his friends and neighbors wanted Murray to stay close to home.
For weeks, Murray would visit a school, decide he loved it, and assume he had his mind made up — until he went on his next visit. Nothing seemed to stick.
He figured that pattern would hold true after his Georgia visit, too. Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo had offered a soft-sell approach. They wanted him, he said, but they let the school sell itself.
A week after his Georgia visit, Murray was in Gainesville, Fla., to check out the Florida program. Nearly everyone he knew was a Gators fan, and there was plenty of pressure on him to make Florida his new team.
As he left campus following his visit, he immediately called his mother.
“I’m ready to commit,” he told her.
His mother assumed he had chosen Florida, but Murray offered a surprise.
“No,” Murray said, “I’m ready to commit to Georgia.”
On all those other visits, Murray had changed his mind after each stop. His time in Gainesville, however, did nothing to lessen his love for the Bulldogs.
“When I left Florida with Georgia on my mind,” he said, “I knew that it was the place for me.”
Since then, Murray and Mettenberger haven’t wavered in their commitment to Georgia. Both enrolled early. Both spend hours helping each other in the film room and weight room. They have already become close friends — roommates, in fact — and are relying on each other to get through the typically tough first few weeks on campus.
But in the end, it’s likely only one will spend a majority of his career under center for the Bulldogs.
“They always say high competition makes you better,” Mettenberger said. “We’re just pushing each other, trying to make each other better.”
Murray’s game centers on his athleticism, while Mettenberger is the prototypical pocket passer with a cannon arm. Both were highly recruited and had their pick of scholarship offers, but rather than head to a program that guaranteed them a starting job, they both headed to Athens with the plan to work for the one job they both truly wanted.
For Murray and Mettenberger, the competition isn’t something they have faced before. For Richt, however, it has become a common story line.
Richt’s first four years in Athens were spent with an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback position. David Greene was his starter and became the winningest quarterback in SEC history. One spot down the depth chart, however, was D.J. Shockley, one of the country’s most sought-after recruits who had numerous opportunities to transfer when it became clear Greene had a stranglehold on the starting job.
As it turned out, Shockley remained with the Bulldogs and was named the starter his senior year — leading Georgia to an SEC championship.
The Bulldogs’ current quarterback, Joe Cox, knows the story, too. He sat on the bench for four seasons waiting for his turn. For the past three years, he has served primarily as the backup for rifle-armed Matthew Stafford, who announced in January that he was leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. Cox said he never considered transferring, happy to wait for a chance to start that he wasn’t sure would ever come.
Now Murray and Mettenberger have signed up for Act III of the Georgia quarterback battle, and Cox knows the road ahead won’t be an easy one.
“That’s going to be a tough situation for both of them whenever it comes because they’re both really good friends,” Cox said.
Both Shockley and Cox developed close relationships with the coaching staff at Georgia and managed to become leaders in the locker room even before earning a starting job. That made it harder to decide to leave, Cox said, but Richt thinks the credit for their perseverance belongs mostly with the players.
“We have had some very outstanding quarterbacks willing to wait for their opportunity at Georgia,” Richt said. “I think a lot of it has to do with type of young men they are, guys who are very unselfish, guys that put the team first, guys that are very dedicated to getting better even if they are not starting.”
Murray got dozens of calls from other teams using Mettenberger’s commitment as leverage in hopes of steering him away from Georgia, Murray he remained solid in his decision.
Before the quarterbacks were offered a scholarship, Murray said, Richt made sure they understood that competition was part of the offer.
“I knew if I was going to commit here, I’d be going up against a top guy in my class,” Murray said. “But no matter where you want to go in the country, unless you want to go to a small school, if you want to go to a D-I, you’re going to have to compete, and I think neither of us have shied away from that.”
Neither Murray nor Mettenberger would rule out a potential transfer down the road, but for now they’re both excited to be right where they are.
Mettenberger said he started scouting Murray at camps last year, and he knows he is in for a tough fight. Murray is confident in his ability but knows Mettenberger won’t be easy to beat out.
For now, however, neither has a firm grasp on the offense. Both are simply struggling to keep their heads above water amid the deluge of new information they’re trying to process.
In times like this, they’re both glad they are in Athens together. It helps to have someone who can empathize with the situation, Murray said.
What the future holds for two of the country’s best young quarterbacks, however, remains to be seen, and as far as Murray and Mettenberger are concerned, that’s exactly how they like it.
“I think both of us are in the mind-set now that we’re going to do whatever it takes to be quarterback for the University of Georgia,” Murray said. “No one can tell what the future’s going to bring. We’ll see what happens the next couple years, but right now we’re just working hard, learning the playbook and having fun working together.”