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August 5, 2007

Sophomore Stafford leads the way

ATHENS, Ga. -- Matthew Stafford can admit it now: There were times last year when he wasn't really sure what was going on.

All he could do was fake it.

"You can't walk into the huddle and not act confident," Georgia's sophomore quarterback said Saturday. "You've got to at least act like you know what you're doing."

Stafford has no such doubts this season, and neither do the Bulldogs when it comes to their starting QB.

Unlike 2006, when Georgia let four quarterbacks battle for the job and spent the first half of the year trying to sort things out, Stafford went into the first preseason practice as the unquestioned leader of the offense and, by extension, the entire team.

"He's been through the fire," coach Mark Richt said. "The other guys saw him persevere through some really tough situations. I think he gained the respect of the team."

Stafford certainly endured a trying year as a freshman.

He began as a third-stringer, struggling to grasp the complexities of the college game, but found himself starting after senior Joe Tereshinski went down with an ankle injury in the second game. Stafford clearly wasn't ready for the challenge, leaving the Bulldogs on the brink of a loss to woeful Colorado before Joe Cox rallied them to a 14-13 win.

Cox started one game and Tereshinski came back to start a couple more before Richt finally decided to turn the job over to Stafford, for better or worse.

The worse came first. The Bulldogs struggled to a win over Mississippi State and lost to Florida and Kentucky, a three-game stretch in which Stafford threw three touchdown passes and was intercepted eight times.

Richt stuck by his young QB, and something clicked over the final three games of the season. Stafford led the Bulldogs to wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech -- ranked teams all. He stopped trying to force passes into coverage with his strong right arm, realized it wasn't necessarily a mistake to throw the ball away or take a sack.

"Matthew had to learn the hard way," Richt said. "Not many guys have to go through the learning process on national TV like Matthew did. I think it toughened him up, made him stronger mentally and taught him how to play the game."

Stafford didn't put up huge numbers in those last three games, throwing for three TDs and averaging 173 yards passing. But he was picked off only once, a sure sign of maturity in a young quarterback.

The Bulldogs managed to make something out of a potentially lost season, rallying to a 9-4 record that put everyone in a much better mood heading to 2007.

"He learned how important it is to take care of the football," Richt said. "He put his teammates in position to succeed. He saw that you don't have to play lights-out to win the game. There's nothing wrong with punting once in a while. Defense can be exciting."

In retrospect, the learning curve was a bit tougher than Stafford expected coming off his brilliant high school career in Texas. His overall numbers were mediocre: 52.7 percent completions, with seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

"More of it was me not knowing what the defense was bringing rather than not knowing the offense," he said. "I knew the plays. It wasn't like I was out there calling plays, then walking up to the line with no idea what anybody was going to do. More of it was the play changing if the defense changed, or a guy running a different route against a certain defense. That was the hardest thing for me to get used to."

Stafford is more sure of himself going into his sophomore year. He took over a leadership role during the offseason, leading summer workouts and letting some of his natural swagger wear off on his teammates.

While the Bulldogs have plenty of question marks, quarterback isn't one of them. It's amazing how much that improves the entire team's outlook.

"If you're unsettled at quarterback," Richt said, "it affects everybody. It affects the whole perception of the program. Now that we have him in there, have it settled that he's the one, we know that we're going to get better production from him than we did a year ago. That's an exciting thing for everybody."

Stafford's teammates know they have a quarterback who might be as talented as any in the country, but merely needed some experience.

"He's kind of a natural-born leader," running back Thomas Brown said. "He didn't have to do much other than just go out there and prove himself. When he did that, everyone rallied around him."

Stafford knows what he's doing -- and it shows.

"I'm definitely not faking it anymore," he said.



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