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September 5, 2007

No sophomore slump for Stafford

A year ago, Matthew Stafford was a cocky freshman who didn't really know much about running a college offense.

The confidence is still there.

Only now, he's backing it up on the field.

Stafford had the look of a seasoned veteran at the start of his sophomore year, leading No. 11 Georgia to an impressive 35-14 victory over Oklahoma State. He did just about everything right: completing 18-of-24 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, while avoiding any of the devastating turnovers that plagued his freshman season.

``I was very pleased with Stafford, and I was watching him real close,'' coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. ``If the plays were not there, he threw it away. He took a sack one time. I know he didn't want to, but he did. He didn't throw many balls, if any, that could've or should've been picked off.''

The Bulldogs (1-0) play their first Southeastern Conference game on Saturday, hosting Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks a fitting opponent to show the progress Stafford has made over the past year.

He got his first extensive playing time against this very team at the beginning of 2006. Forced onto the field when Joe Tereshinski went down with an ankle injury, Stafford threw for 171 yards against the Gamecocks, but he also completed just 8-of-19 throws and was picked off three times.

``It was definitely tough to come in at first, trying to remember everything we had gone over during the week,'' Stafford recalled. ``I didn't expect to play the whole game, maybe just a series here and there. But it was good. I kind of got my feet wet. It got me going.''

Fortunately for Stafford, the Georgia defense totally shut down the Gamecocks in an 18-0 win. By midseason, the Bulldogs decided to drop their quarterback shuffle and turn things over to the talented freshman.

He went through some growing pains completing just 13-of-33 in a loss to Florida, tossing three interceptions in a shocking upset by Kentucky but finally got a grasp of things late in the season. Stafford led the Bulldogs to three straight wins over ranked teams, salvaging a 9-4 record that gave him plenty of bravado going into his sophomore year.

``He was a very confident guy coming in last year,'' running back Thomas Brown said. ``He's even more confident this year. He knows the offense better. He has a better understanding of the game. He makes a lot less mistakes. He's more careful with the ball.''

Like any successful quarterback, Stafford carries himself with a certain flare, as if saying to his teammates: Don't worry guys, I've got things under control. When he came to the sideline late in the game against Oklahoma State, he winked at a teammate and flashed a wry smile after taking off his helmet.

``We're all excited to see how he's going to do this year,'' Brown said.

Stafford already has developed a rapport with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who took over the play-calling duties in the final two games of the 2006 season. Sometimes, the quarterback will turn away before the guys on the sideline have even finished signaling in the play because he knows just what Bobo wants to do.

The result was a nearly flawless offensive performance in the season opener. Stafford made all the right reads and usually checked the Bulldogs into the play that had the best chance of working. Even when things didn't work out, he knew that an incompletion or a sack was better than an interception.

For Stafford, it felt like high school all over again, a time when he could do no wrong.

``It was definitely a fun game for me,'' he said. ``I felt a whole lot more relaxed and just ready to go. Just knowing what I'm doing, going through my progressions the right way, makes it a lot more fun for me.''

Richt did little to lessen the hype that has accompanied Stafford since the day he stepped on campus.

``He's the most talented guy I've ever coached. Will he be successful as a winner, as a championship quarterback? Only time will tell,'' the coach said. ``I do know that he has everything you need to win. Now, he's just got to win to really define himself as a great one.''

Notes: The Bulldogs named Antavious Coates as a captain for Saturday's game, even though his college career ended before it ever got started. Coates, a redshirt sophomore, had to call it quits after tearing his ACL four times without ever getting on the field for Georgia. But the South Carolina native will get a chance to suit up and go to midfield for the opening coin toss against the Gamecocks. ... RB Kregg Lumpkin had surgery on his broken thumb Tuesday. The senior may be able to play on special teams in a couple of weeks and return to the backfield in three to four weeks, Richt said.



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