The rush is coming – burly 300-pound defenders poised to crush the passer before the ball leaves his hand. The view is obscured, with linemen blocking sight lines to the receivers downfield. The clock is ticking, and in the span of seconds the quarterback has to decide whether to air the ball out or tuck it and run.
“You have three or four seconds to throw the football,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We have our reads – one, two, three – and if no one’s there, you pretty much take off and get what you can.”
Seems simple enough, but there’s certainly more to it than Murray lets on.
That decision, made in just a few fractions of a second, can change the game. It can be the difference between a sack and a first down, a stalled drive and a scoring drive, a win and a loss.
But throughout Mark Richt’s tenure as Georgia’s head coach, the players tasked with making those decisions haven’t exactly been known for the work they do with their legs – save the Bulldogs’ 2005 season in which they won the SEC with the mobile D.J. Shockley running the show.
David Greene, Matthew Stafford and Joe Cox weren’t the most fleet afoot – although Stafford’s work with his legs was an underrated part of his arsenal – and accordingly, Georgia’s offense has become widely known as a typical pro style set – a term used properly when discussing the formations, but occasionally employed derisively to underscore the lack of athleticism at the quarterback position. Richt’s quarterbacks don’t run often – and that stands out even more when compared to the multifaceted spread offenses now commonplace throughout the rest of college football.
This season, however, there’s a good chance things could change a bit at Georgia. Two of the three competitors in the race for the starting quarterback job are known as much for their athleticism as they are for their arms, and Murray, the leading contender for the job, possesses a dangerous combination of both.
“I believe those guys are athlete enough to add a little bit of quarterback run, run a little zone read, run a little quarterback draw,” Richt said. “I don’t see us running a true option, but … we’ll have quarterback run gamed for them, and you would expect them to make plays either crossing the line of scrimmage or scrambling right, left, buying time and finding someone downfield.”
There have always been a few of those plays in the playbook, but last year they were rarely called. Cox, who started all 13 games for Georgia last year, had just 19 runs for a gain all of last season – half what Stafford had the year before.
While runs like the ones Stafford made during Georgia’s improbable upset of Auburn in 2006 – a game in which he had 83 yards rushing on seven carries – had always been a weapon, last year the threat nearly evaporated.
Richt expects things to be different if Murray or rising junior Logan Gray lands the starting quarterback job this season. Not different enough to revamp the offense, but enough to turn some bad plays into big ones.
“You might have a route that has a progression -- tight end, flanker, back -- and when he’s not open, their job is to sail it out bounds and not take the sack. But there are other guys that are athletic enough where they can move up in the pocket and maybe have space to run and get four or five yards to get the first down,” Richt said. “If two times a game the quarterback can cross the line of scrimmage and get the first down when it wasn’t designed for it to happen that way, that’s huge, and I think those guys can do that.”
Neither has proven it at the college level just yet, but both are veterans at running the football.
Murray rushed for 932 yards as a junior at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground, which complemented his big arm. Still, running in the SEC is a different beast, he said.
“High school, they had a lot of designed runs for me. It was pretty much, I get up there and see an open hole, and I wouldn’t even look at the receivers,” Murray said. “Now I can’t do that. In college, those linebackers run 4.5s and 4.6s and they’re just as fast as you and a lot bigger. If you get hit by them, it’s going to hurt.”
Gray was inserted into the lineup for designed runs on several occasions last season and met with minimal success. But the plays with Gray behind center were rare, and the defense often knew what was coming. Having a quarterback like Murray or Gray as the starter adds an element of surprise.
“Defenders respect a guy who can run and sometimes will come off a coverage to come get him and all of a sudden they can flip it to a guy whose open,” Richt said. “I think that’ll be good.”
Beyond the quarterback runs, however, there’s the more subtle art of moving in the pocket. That’s more of an acquired skill, and one Murray and Gray are still developing.
“Foot quickness is what (offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo really preaches to us, and we work a lot of drills just on foot quickness, moving up in the pocket, getting out of the pocket and finding an open hole,” Murray said.
Among the many highlight-reel throws Stafford made during his career at Georgia, perhaps the one that stands out the most came against Kentucky in 2008.
Late in the fourth quarter, Georgia needed a touchdown to take the lead. The pocket broke down quickly, but Stafford wasn’t ready to give up on the play. He stepped up to avoid one defender then moved right – out toward the sideline to buy time.
As he scrambled to avoid the oncoming rush, he found A.J. Green waiting in the back of the end zone, whipped a pass over two defenders, and hit Green for the eventual game-winning score.
The pass was what garnered the headlines the next day, but it was what Stafford did with his feet that created the play and, in turn, won the game. That’s a weapon Bobo is hoping to see a lot more of if Murray or Gray should land the starting quarterback job this year.
“A lot of it is just mobility within the pocket – to be able to move a little bit right or left, sidestep a rusher, find a throwing lane,” Bobo said. “It’s not necessarily designated runs for that guy, but just there’ll be times when guys are covered and things are going to break down, and the ability to make good decisions and break contain and make plays with their legs, that’s good.”