ATHENS, Ga.— It’s not that Aaron Murray hadn’t played in front of big crowds before. In fact, Saturday’s G-Day game wasn’t even his first game carried nationally by ESPN.
But there was something about stepping onto the field between the hedges at Sanford Stadium for the first time in front of cheering fans that had his stomach in knots.
“I was extremely nervous,” Murray said. “Before the game, my stomach was rumbling, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, can I even do this?’ ”
Thankfully, he said, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was kind enough to call a few running plays to break the ice, and by the time Murray settled into the pocket and launched a tight spiral to Marquise Brown for a 43-yard gain, the freshman quarterback was feeling right at home.
“Once I got the first couple snaps out of the way, it was awesome being out there between the hedges in front of the fans,” Murray said. “I had a great time out there.”
As it turned out, the pass to Brown was the longest of the day in what was a defensive-dominated 13-3 win by the Red team — which featured Georgia’s first-team offense and second-string defense.
Despite his novice stature on the depth chart, the play earned Murray a particularly impressive distinction this spring. The freshman from Tampa, Fla., who enrolled early in January was responsible for the longest offensive play in each of Georgia’s three scrimmages this spring.
That doesn’t mean he’s ready for a starting spot this fall, but Murray has managed to scale the learning curve as quickly as his coaches could have hoped. For the spring, Murray finished 13-of-21 for 306 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in three scrimmages, including Saturday’s game.
His fellow true freshman, Zach Mettenberger, saw the opposite end of the spectrum, completing just 2-of-18 throws for 43 yards and two interceptions.
But despite their divergent stat lines, head coach Mark Richt was pleased with the way his two young quarterbacks progressed this spring.
“For whatever reason the balls that Zach has thrown have gotten dropped more than the balls Aaron has thrown,” Richt said, “but both have proved to me they’re very intelligent, that they’re good fundamentally, that they can hit their target and they have bright futures.”
The G-Day game proved to be a debut for more than just the two freshmen quarterbacks, however. First-year starter Joe Cox led the offense onto the field in front of the home fans to start a game for the first time his career Saturday. Cox’s only previous start in four seasons was on the road at Mississippi in 2006, and he spent the past two seasons handling reserve duty behind Matthew Stafford, who announced in January he would leave school early to enter the draft.
Stafford was still on the sidelines for the G-Day game, but now he was just a fan, and Cox said Saturday was the first time it struck him that the Bulldogs were finally his team.
“It did kind of sink in today just because there was fans there and when we came onto the field, they were cheering,” Cox said. “It was a lot of fun, and today was probably the first taste of me feeling like I was the guy and I enjoyed it.”
Cox finished the day 9-of-16 for 105 yards, including a 35-yard bomb to A.J. Green to open the game. But the defense was in control for most of the action after that, and none of the quarterbacks found the end zone. The only touchdown of the day went to tailback Carlton Thomas, who took a handoff around the end for 20 yards and score with 1:08 left in the game.
Perhaps the most impressive of the Georgia quarterbacks Saturday was Logan Gray, who has been lost in the shuffle surrounding Cox’s emergence as the starter and the freshmen’s first taste of action this spring.
The redshirt freshman finished the game completing 9-of-13 passes for 91 yards but saw several would-be completions dropped by his receivers while he also was whistled down five times for sacks.
“From an offensive standpoint, everybody wants to put up as many points as they can, but when I was in, I felt like we moved the ball pretty well,” Gray said. “I felt comfortable out there and made a few pretty decent throws. I thought it was a pretty good day for people to see what I can do. I didn’t get to run the ball quite as much as I would have liked, but that’s tough when the quarterbacks are going no contact.”
In the end, Cox said the offensive performance was pretty much what he had anticipated.
At times, they looked sharp, but there was still a lot of rust to shake off before the team heads to Oklahoma State to open the season in September.
The G-Day game didn’t make or break anyone, Cox said, but it did underscore the notion that the job of preparing for the fall is nowhere close to complete.
“Obviously we weren’t clicking,” Cox said. “It’s still spring. You can’t make any inferences about how good our offense is off the spring game. But obviously there’s things we need to get better.”