ATHENS, Ga. — It’s one of the most high-profile position battles of the fall, but the winner isn’t likely to see the field on game day for weeks.
The race to be Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback isn’t about instant gratification. It’s about setting the table for the next two or three years. For sophomore Logan Gray and freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, getting playing time this season is only a stepping stone — but it’s a big one.
“That’s the motivation, what I’ve been thinking about this whole summer,” said Gray, who is the nominal backup to Joe Cox for the time being. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get on the field.”
With three young quarterbacks on the roster and the future of the Bulldogs’ offense up for grabs after Cox — a fifth-year senior — departs at year’s end, the race toward the top of the depth chart begins now. Through a month of spring football and two weeks of fall practice, the answer has seemed pretty clear.
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Gray has two years of experience under his belt that affords him a far better grasp on the playbook than his freshmen counterparts.
After Gray missed a large portion of preparation at the quarterback position last year while working on special teams as a punt returner, coaches worried he might catch on slowly this spring. Instead, Gray answered the challenge with an impressive performance throughout practice, culminating with a strong G-Day effort in which he completed 9-of-13 passes for 91 yards and was named the biggest surprise of the spring.
The momentum has continued into the fall and in Georgia’s first scrimmage of the season Gray was sharp, completing 6-of-12 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s done a nice job of preparing himself,” coach Mark Richt said. “You can just see there’s a lot more confidence in his ability to run the system than even in the spring probably. I think he had a great spring and took the momentum into the summer and has done a very nice job.”
While Gray is beginning to blossom, the allure of Murray and Mettenberger remains in their potential. Both were among the top-recruited quarterbacks coming out of high school, both participated in the Elite 11 quarterback camp, and both enrolled early at Georgia this spring.
That first month of work in March and April was a blur for both freshmen, and coaches were simply looking for marginal improvement rather than stunning results. The experience was immensely important just to get a feel for the game, Murray said.
“I’m definitely a lot more comfortable out there,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking, and I think I threw about 15 balls over the wall my first day. Now I feel a lot more comfortable. I still have some things I need to work on, but it’s a lot better.”
While the coaches expected mistakes in the spring, the stakes are higher now.
Richt officially made the job of backup quarterback an open competition at the start of fall practice, promising some significant playing time to whichever player won the job.
“Coach Richt put the No. 2 spot open, and all of us are trying to get it,” Mettenberger said.
Gray is guaranteed to see at least a few snaps this season regardless, but the competition is even more important to the freshmen. While Richt hasn’t ruled out playing a third quarterback this season, chances are both will be redshirted if neither lands the top backup job.
“One of them is going to be No. 3 if they’re not No. 2, and we still may choose to play them, but I’d be hesitant to do that,” Richt said.
After all, Richt has been down this road before, handing playing time to a talented freshman in hopes that he could develop on the job. While Matthew Stafford had his share of highlights during his first season in 2006, there were plenty of frustrating moments for Richt and his staff as well.
So while Richt is certain that neither Murray nor Mettenberger will have a perfect grasp of the intricacies of the Georgia offense, he’s not planning to lower his demands for what it will take for either of them to see the field.
“Until they can step into that huddle with some confidence and really convince their teammates and their coaches they’re ready, they may be still be potential guys rather than guys who are ready to move up on the chart,” Richt said.
Mettenberger struggled in his first fall scrimmage, completing just 1-of-10 passes. Murray looked a bit better, despite playing against the first-team defense. He connected on just 5-of-16 passes, but did throw one touchdown.
Still, the results underscore the real problem for both freshmen, and as much as Murray wants the job, even he has to admit he’s not quite ready for it yet.
The demands are high, even for the backup. In the blink of an eye, the No. 2 quarterback can be on the field with the game on the line, and Murray is still trying to get used to the idea of running the show.
“That’s the biggest thing is, before you can lead a team, you have to know what you’re going to do and what everyone else is doing,” Murray said. “I feel like I know it pretty well, but I don’t know everything 100 percent. I don’t have that complete confidence to get in there. So I just need to keep studying every day and learn as much as possible, and we’ll see what happens.”