JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Aaron Murray played quarterback at my daughter’s high school -- Tampa Plant -- so I got to see him a lot during my days in the bay area covering the NFL.
At Plant, Murray succeeded Robert Marve, the state’s 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year, who not only broke a bunch of Tim Tebow passing records en route to guiding the Panthers to their first state championship (upending Tebow’s former Ponte Vedra Nease High in the final, by the way), but made Plant the first Tampa public school to claim a state crown since 1964.
Then two years later, Murray helped the Panthers to a second title, returning from a nagging season-long ankle injury, defeating a great team from Palm Beach Dwyer (as in Matt Elam, Jacoby Brissett and Nick O’Leary) in the semifinals, and beating Tallahassee Lincoln in the championship game (video highlights below).
In the 2009, Plant won another state championship behind another quarterback, Phillip Ely, who went on to play at Alabama, so you wondered if it wasn’t the high school system these guys were in as much the individual player.
Murray, now a redshirt junior in his third year as a starter at Georgia, has shown that’s clearly not the case.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him and how he plays the position,” Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of Murray, who the No. 3 Gators (7-0, 6-0) will need to contain in today’s mega-meeting with No. 12 Georgia (7-1, 4-1) at EverBank Field. “Up to this point, he's certainly been accurate, a good decision-maker and somebody that's got our attention.”
Murray’s numbers are now lining next to the likes of some of the best quarterbacks Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever tutored, a distinguished room that includes his days at Florida State with Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, and in Athens with David Greene and Matthew Stafford.
The kid eats and sleeps football fundamentals -- and did so back during his days in South Tampa.
“Aaron, he loves it. He loves the grind of learning how to be an SEC quarterback, learning how to be a potential professional quarterback. He eats it up,” Richt said. “He works like no one’s business and he prepares himself and, in turn, helps prepare the team to be in the best possible situations we can get him in and give him the best chance of success when the ball snaps. That’s not even counting the fundamentals of dropping back, sitting in the pocket, delivering the ball accurately, just the basic fundamentals of being a quarterback. But he’s got those as well. I’ve just been real proud of him. He’s been a tremendous guy to coach and I’m just glad we got him.”
Florida fans, of course, will recall Murray’s two fourth-down touchdown passes that rallied the Bulldogs from a 14-point deficit to their 24-17 win here last year. Those were two of Murray’s 75 career TD strikes, which ranks first in Georgia history.
In last week’s 29-24 win at Kentucky, Murray went 30 of 38 (that’s 79 percent) for a career-high 427 yards and four touchdowns. The season’s aggregate numbers show 65.3 percent on his throws for 1,914 yards, 16 TDs and just four interceptions.
For a defense like Florida’s, which has thrived on turnovers this season, that last digit will present a challenge to force Murray into mistakes he doesn’t usually make.
It’s worth noting that Georgia’s opponents to date have been Buffalo, Missouri, Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, South Carolina (the lone loss) and Kentucky.
UF’s defense, ranked seventh nationally and third in the SEC certainly is closer to South Carolina’s than those other teams, but no one (specifically Jon Bostic, Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd and friends) should dare venture into this game overconfident.
“[Murray has] real poise in the pocket. He's an accurate thrower and he makes good decisions,” Quinn said. “He's got the mental quickness you look for in all quarterbacks that they know where to go with the ball. And I think when you're talking about quarterbacks, that's one of the first things that comes into play of how quickly they can decipher where they want to go with the ball and certainly him, playing in their system, he does a really good job of getting the ball out. He hasn't been sacked a lot. He doesn't throw a lot of interceptions. He's accurate, so those are the initial challenges you face with a guy like this.”