During the maturation process of a college football quarterback, there are different stages and phases through which the player passes, and each stage carries along with it a few different defining characteristics. At the start of the career, you're looking for a player who's simply able to check down from his lead receiver, not force throws when the throw isn't there, and learn the lesson of living to play another day. After the rookie season, you begin to look for more maturation...better mechanics, controlling the defensive secondary with his eyes (not staring down a receiver), occasionally checking out of plays, etc. Finally, though, after two years of starting, in addition to all of the aforementioned characteristics, the player should begin to start displaying symptoms common of what Gary Danielson so fondly refers to as a 'veteran quarterback' - things like using pump fakes regularly, and displaying pocket presence and the ability to move around the pocket to avoid the rush, while still keeping eyes downfield. The problem with this, though, is that, in my opinion, the veteran quarterback moniker sometimes gets incorrectly applied to a quarterback who's simply winning and is playing behind an excellent offensive line (read: AJ McCarron), as opposed to a quarterback who's actually elevating his team beyond its normal level of play.
On Saturday night in Lexington, Kentucky, Aaron Murray was the shining example of the latter...a quarterback who has had several seasons of starting, who knows how to properly check down to his receivers, how to throw the ball away, how sometimes it's better to take a sack than to commit a turnover, how to look off defenders, to get his receivers open by using pump fakes, and finally, by having the sixth sense that great quarterbacks have in being able to feel the rush closing in, take a step or two in one direction, step and throw and deliver an accurate pass to a receiver downfield. Last season, we lamented some of the times Murray stared down receivers, or tried to keep a play alive only to end up fumbling (the Clowney play vs. South Carolina in 2011, for instance). This season, Murray has largely avoided those sorts of things, and what's more, his play has risen above that of his teammates. Behind a haphazard line that was struggling far too much with a less than impressive Kentucky defensive front, Murray moved around the pocket, used pump fakes, looked off receivers, checked out of plays, and ended up going 30-38 for 427 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions, earning a 208.1 passer rating and leading the Dawgs to victory in a game that a team with a lesser quarterback would not have won (just think back to the Kentucky game in 2009).
Now, while watching the game, there were two plays that led directly to scores that really wowed me with Murray. The first play was late in the first quarter, with Georgia trailing by a touchdown. We were in the shotgun with three receivers on the field ( Tavarres King, Marlon Brown, and Malcolm Mitchell) and Jay Rome lined up at tight end, plus Todd Gurley as the weakside back. With the defense playing zone coverage, the play calls for King to run a hitch n' go route, Mitchell to run a deep route on the strong side, and Brown, Gurley, and Rome to all settle into the soft spots in the zone in the flats to act as check down options for Murray. When King, the go-to receiver on the play, makes his hitch, it's Murray's responsibility to pump fake a throw to him. If the two defenders covering King bite on the hitch/pump fake combo, King should open up beyond them, and Murray can hit him deep. If the defenders don't bite, then Murray should look to one of his dump off options. Fortunately for the Dawgs, the defenders did bite, and Murray proceeded to hit King over the top for the longest score of the day, a 66 yard touchdown on a first and bomb. Check out the play at the six second mark here:
The second play that's particularly impressive (and to me, more impressive than the pump fake) came with around five minutes left in the third quarter, with Georgia trailing 17-16. The Dawgs found themselves driving into Kentucky territory, with the ball at the 22 yard line fresh off of a first down. Our personnel on the field were Mitchell in the x, Chris Conley in the slot to the right, and Rantavious Wooten in the z spot. Arthur Lynch was also lined up to the left at tight end, and with Murray playing under center, Keith Marshall was lined up eight yards deep in the singleback spot. The defense was playing man coverage, and the play called for Mitchell to basically be a decoy, initially faking a quick screen, then heading upfield. On the other side of the field, Wooten was running a skinny post, and Conley was tasked with running a dig route. Lynch was blocking, and Marshall was also tasked with blocking, though there was a half-hearted attempt at play-action by Murray. The really impressive piece here, though, is Murray's pocket presence. Marshall initially picks up a nice block against blitzing linebacker Josh Forrest, but Murray is able to feel that the block won't hold, and that he won't be able to step and deliver an accurate throw. To account for this, all while keeping his eyes focused downfield, he simply takes one step to the right, which gives him a new throwing lane and allows him to confidently step into his throw, hitting Chris Conley perfectly in stride between the defenders. From there, Conley does the work, breaking a tackle and going in for the touchdown. Take a glance at the play here at the 0:39 mark:
Well, folks, this has been the third installment of the Tuesday Video Breakdown. Continue to look for the little things in plays that lead to scores, and be sure to give credit where it's due, which, in this instance, is definitely to Aaron Murray.
As always, Go Dawgs! ...oh, and have you hated your Gator today?