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Stafford has grown into Georgia’s leader.


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Stafford has grown into Georgia’s leader

By TIM TUCKER

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Friday, August 29, 2008

Athens — As Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford interacts with his teammates — praising them, correcting them — Mark Richt envisions another quarterback at work.

“It’s like the communications you would picture Peyton Manning having with his group,” said Richt, Georgia’s coach.

Which is Richt’s way of saying: In his third season as Georgia’s quarterback, Stafford has grown into Georgia’s leader.

Stafford started eight games as a freshman and all 13 as a sophomore but “didn’t try to knock the veteran leaders out of the box,” as Richt approvingly puts it. Or as Stafford puts it, referring to his freshman self: “When you’re somebody who really doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one can respect what you have to say.”

Now a junior, now the quarterback of America’s top-ranked college football team, a more vocal and assertive Stafford “absolutely has evolved into the role of leader,” Richt said. The Bulldogs have other strong leaders on offense, too, the coach added, but “Matthew is definitely on top of the list.”

Stafford carries a 17-4 record as Georgia’s starting quarterback — by far his most impressive statistic — into today’s season opener against Georgia Southern. His leadership skills, as well as his playmaking abilities, are sure to be tested in the weeks and months ahead as the Bulldogs try to navigate a grueling schedule and the pressures of a preseason No. 1 rating.

“We know it’s a long way,” Stafford said, “from the first game to the last.”

The journey, wherever it goes, begins today in Sanford Stadium.

Change was coming

Teammates say Stafford is showing the talent and temperament to steer the course.

“It’s a sense of maturity, a sense of ‘I’ve been here before,’ ” said injured fullback Brannan Southerland, a senior who has known Stafford since hosting him on the quarterback’s official recruiting visit in the fall of 2005. “For any player, but especially a quarterback, [experience] is huge.”

Senior tight end Tripp Chandler said Stafford was assertive during the offseason in getting players together for “voluntary” workouts. “If he says be somewhere,” Chandler said, “guys are going to be somewhere.”

But just as players and coaches say they’ve seen a change in Stafford this year, they also say they saw it coming. Chandler said he saw a future leader on Nov. 4, 2006, a day on which freshman Stafford threw three interceptions in a loss at Kentucky.

“Someone grabbed his face mask and he got a late hit, got hit in the face. Busted his lip, sliced his nose. Blood was dripping down his face,” Chandler recalled. “He didn’t say a word. Just went over and got the next play from the coach. Spit out the blood and put his helmet back on.

“A lot of guys would have got up and yelled at the referees. He kept his focus. That was what he needed to do.”

Confidence

Stafford arrived at Georgia in January 2006, a highly-hyped, big-armed quarterback from Dallas — credentials he knew gave him no clout with his older teammates.

“When he was younger, he did what good leaders do,” Richt said. “He observed the older guys and tried to learn from the Fernando Velascos, the Thomas Browns and the Kregg Lumpkins.”

They are gone now. It’s Stafford’s team and time.

“I’ve been here long enough that I think everybody knows I can get it done,” Stafford said this week. “That has allowed me to be more vocal. I think [the team] respects what I say now and knows it is for the good of the team.”

Said Richt: “I’ve seen him many, many times have a receiver come back from running a route and either say, ‘That was outstanding,’ or say [something like], ‘You went eight steps instead of six.’ Either a positive critique or a correction, whether of the effort or the route itself.

“He has the ability to tell [an offensive] teammate who is lost what to do. On any position, he can tell just about anybody what they need to do, which is huge.”

That includes star running back Knowshon Moreno. “If I make a mistake,” Moreno said, “he tells me, ‘Got to do this.’”

Teammates say Stafford has become a confident leader while remaining true to his laid-back personality.

“He has a way of putting a little bug in your ear when something needs to be said, and he doesn’t wait too long,” flanker Mohamed Massaquoi said.

“He’s always laid back and cool,” offensive lineman Vince Vance said, “but he gives a little pep talk if things are dulling down.”

More than a little pep talk was the lecture Stafford delivered in a meeting on the eve of preseason camp, demanding that the team bear down after eight players were arrested and six suspended or dismissed during the offseason.

“‘All that stuff’s over with,’” Stafford said to the team, as he later recounted it. “‘It’s camp; it’s football from now on. It’s going to be 24-7 X’s and O’s and getting ready for the season. Let’s go play football. That’s what we came here for. Make sure your minds are right, and let’s get ready to go. We’ve got who we’ve got. Let’s play.’”

Stafford has said in the past that he personally became more guarded after photos of him holding a keg over his head at Talladega Superspeedway found their way onto the Internet in May 2007, drawing much attention.

The future

Stafford has been pegged as a potential top-five NFL draft pick in the next year or two, but he concedes that — aside from victories — his statistics so far are light.

He has thrown 26 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions the past two seasons — 13 of the interceptions as a freshman, 19 of the touchdowns as a sophomore — and last year’s 55.7-percent completion rate is well below his goal of about 64 percent.

The pollsters who made Georgia No. 1 anticipate bigger numbers from Stafford this season, as does he, although the play of a young offensive line will be key to that. If the line develops, the potential exists for a robust offense, with Moreno running strong and Stafford throwing deep.

“When Matt first stepped on campus, 17 years old, one of the first balls I saw him throw, he threw it 60 yards on a line,” said Chandler, the tight end. “All we heard about was his arm, arm, arm. When Knowshon came on, maybe he gave us more balance. But I like having a dangerous arm like that always in your arsenal.”

The Bulldogs have found more to Matthew Stafford than that arm.

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