Now, 10 games into a season he has turned over to true freshman Matthew Stafford, Richt looks like a prophet. Stafford has thrown 12 interceptions versus four touchdowns, and the Bulldogs rank 85th nationally in offense.
There was a second, and much more ominous, part to Richt’s warning, one he and the rest of the team are hoping doesn’t come true. A bad start can crush a young quarterback’s confidence so much that he’ll never fully recover, Richt said.
“He is a confident kid and believes in himself, but you worry about that because he has made some mistakes,” quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo said.
However, Richt, despite being right on the mark up to this point, doesn’t think the last half of his projection will prove true in this case.
“Matthew’s a strong kid, he’s going through a tough time, but he’s a physically and mentally tough guy,” Richt said. “He’s very talented and things will get better and his play will improve. We’ll look back and hopefully laugh at some of the things that are happening now. They’re not very laughable now, though.”
Of the top 100 quarterbacks in the country, only Louisiana-Monroe’s Kinsmon Lancaster has thrown more interceptions. Only two – Memphis’ Martin Haskins and Troy’s Omar Haugabook – have as many. All three of those players have more passing attempts than Stafford.
With three more games left in the season, two in the regular season and a bowl game, Stafford is on pace to throw more interceptions than any Bulldog since 1953, when Zeke Bratkowski had 23. The last Georgia quarterback to throw for more than the 12 Stafford already has was Bobo, who had 16 in 1996.
Georgia (6-4, 3-4 SEC) plays No. 5 Auburn (9-1, 5-1) in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
“Any time you play a freshman quarterback, you have to live and die with good and bad situations,” Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville said. “This young man is going to be a heck of a football player. They’ve just decided to work through the up and downs with him, which I can understand considering the talent he’s got.”
Stafford gave himself a ‘D’ grade for his performance so far this season and seemed relatively disgusted when told he has 1,230 passing yards. (“Everybody wants to throw for three grand,” he said.) However, he has a historical reference point to give him hope.
“The same thing happened to Carson Palmer,” he said, referring to the former Southern Cal quarterback now with the Cincinnati Bengals. “He got booed when he was a sophomore, taken out, he was (called) junk. All that stuff happened to him and look at him now.”
Palmer completed 55 percent of his passes and threw 18 interceptions as a sophomore, and that was in his third year in the Trojans’ program. Two years later, he won the Heisman Trophy.
“It’s tough,” Stafford said, “but if you have a level head, you should be all right.”
Stafford’s teammates don’t expect him to be rattled by his shaky start.
“I’ve yet to see, and I don’t think we’re going to see, Matthew put his head down, tuck his tail and run,” fullback Brannan Southerland said. “He’s made some mistakes as a young quarterback, which you can expect, but I don’t think we’re ever going to see him shy down and beat himself up mentally. He can shake off a mistake very easily, which I think is a great quality to have at any position.”
Stafford has started five of the Bulldogs’ 10 games and is 96-of-186 passing. His passer rating (101.4) is ninth best in the SEC and 98th in the country.
“He’s hard on himself because he’s got expectations like anybody else and he’s used to an awful lot of success,” Richt said. “I’m sure he never would have dreamed he’d be struggling like he’s struggled at times.”
Still, Richt doesn’t have concerns about Stafford’s psyche, he said. In fact, a strong mental make-up is one of the reasons he and Bobo decided Stafford could handle the job at such a young age.
“Him playing this season is just going to serve him well in the future. You can learn a good bit as a redshirt but nothing like he’s learning now,” Richt said. “I think he’s the best play-maker we’ve got on offense right now, and because of that, I think he’s trying to make too much happen.”