They both reside in relatively upscale areas in Tampa, Fla., both have pretty good football programs and consider themselves rivals.
Aaron Murray has a distinct memory of one tussle between the two schools. He was a sophomore at Plant, watching his team take on Jefferson, whose quarterback was a senior named Stephen Garcia. Jefferson was led by a senior quarterback with an equal amount of hype, Robert Marve. Plant won on a late touchdown by Marve, and went on to win the state title.
“It was a huge battle between those guys: The Mavre-Garcia showdown,” Murray recalled.
Marve and Garcia graduated, and Murray took the reins at Plant, which he also led to a state title. He eventually signed with Georgia, and this Saturday when he makes his first start in an SEC game, the opposing quarterback will be none other than Garcia, now a junior at South Carolina.
The similarities between Murray and Garcia extend beyond their hometowns. They’re close in size. They both can create plays with their running ability. They each have an outgoing manner.
Mike Fenton, who coached Garcia at Jefferson, also coached against Murray at Plant.
“They were very similar as far as I’m concerned,” Fenton said. “They could both win games with their feet. Exceptionally strong arms. And both of them were very smart quarterbacks … There were a lot of comparisons.”
G.A. Mangus is now Garcia’s position coach at South Carolina. But while Garcia and Murray were in high school, Mangus was recruiting the two schools for Middle Tennessee State. Several of their teammates signed with Mangus, but he knew the two quarterbacks were going to a higher level.
Early in his senior year, Murray broke his fibula. But he came back and had a huge finish, winning the state title, in a game Mangus attended.
“The thing that struck me the most about Aaron was how tough a kid he was - and his moxy.” Mangus said.
Mangus does recall that Garcia was more of a runner. But Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo remembers Murray running quite a bit – much like he did in his first start, last Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We’ve had to talk about using the pocket and stepping up and making throws,” Bobo said. “And he’s made improvement.”
South Carolina’s coaches, Steve Spurrier in particular, have had the same issues with Garcia and his scrambling.
Georgia looked at Garcia, and he made a trip up to Athens, but the Bulldogs never offered. It was the year after they had signed Matt Stafford, and they signed Logan Gray.
“We were definitely evaluating (Garcia),” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We had already signed Stafford the year before, and we were only going to take one. Garcia was a great athlete too. Logan was a guy that we could play quarterback or possibly DB or receiver, like he is now. So we were going more in that direction, with Logan.”
Garcia could make the Bulldogs think back to that decision if he plays as well Saturday as he did in the opener. Looking poised and in control, he completed 70 percent of his passes, ran for two touchdowns and was never picked off.
Murray, who has followed Garcia’s career at South Carolina, was impressed.
“He’s due for a pretty good year I think,” Murray said. “He’s paid his dues, he’s definitely matured as a player on the field. He’s worked hard from what I’ve heard. He’s a tremendous player. The games I watched in high school he was unbelievable. Definitely was worth all the hype coming out of high school. I think he’s gonna have a great year this year, so we’ll see what happens.”
Murray didn’t get off to a bad start himself, passing for three touchdowns and running for another. But he did make a few freshman mistakes.
Still, Aaron’s brother Josh, a walk-on strong safety at Georgia, said he saw the Aaron of the high school days. Aaron’s athleticism shouldn’t be a surprise, however: He started his career at Plant as a safety.
“People didn’t know about Aaron too much, because of watching Robert,” Josh Murray said. “But the people that knew Aaron knew everything was gonna be great. He played safety, and he was messing people up. He was real physical out there.”
Garcia and Murray have gotten to know each other a bit since their high school days. Murray said they have met and spoken a couple times. (Garcia was not available to the media this week.)
One of Murray’s targets on Saturday will be another Plant product: Tight end Orson Charles. Hawaii quarterback Allen Sampson and Oregon safety Eric Dungy (the son of former NFL coach Tony Dungy) also went there. James Wilder, one of the nation’s top recruits this year, is a Plant star who committed to Florida State.
Jefferson can boast Marve (now at Purdue), Garcia and Fred McGriff, the retired baseball slugger. And both of Plant and Jefferson’s current quarterbacks are being recruited by Division I schools.
But on Saturday, the rivalry continues with just Garcia and Murray.
“I’m just excited to play at South Carolina,” Murray said. “It’s pretty cool that it’s against another Tampa quarterback, so it should be pretty exciting.”