ATHENS — Georgia’s Aaron Murray is the proverbial big man on campus. Coeds fawn when he walks past the bus stop. TV broadcasters and opposing coaches wax eloquent about his athletic ability and uncanny decision-making skills. Sanford Stadium is dotted every Saturday with little boys wearing No. 11 jerseys and dreaming of growing up to be like him.
But that’s not the way his teammates think of him.
“He’s a nerd,” said wide receiver Tavarres King, one of Murray’s closer friends. “He’s always studying, and he already knows so much. It’s hard to even talk to him outside of football because it’s always going to get back to football, whatever we’re talking about.”
Said wideout Michael Bennett: “He’s got some weird study habits when it comes to quarterback. He’s in here [at the football complex] all the time. He spends a weird amount of hours in here. … Sundays he’s in here real early. Saturdays he comes back here right after a game. He’s here five or six hours a day. It’s all football with him.”
Sure, Murray is physically gifted. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound quarterback is faster than most think, bigger and stronger than generally given credit for and in possession of a throwing arm that’s starting to give NFL scouts cause for pause.
But that’s not what has made him into the record-setting passer he has become for the Bulldogs. That, those around him contend, is a result of his bookish approach to the position.
“Aaron just prepares really like no one we’ve had,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who has had David Greene, the quarterback with the most wins in NCAA history when he left, and Matthew Stafford, an NFL No. 1 draft pick, among his quarterbacks. “And we’ve had guys that work hard. All of our guys work hard at preparing, but Murray just takes it to another level in how he prepares for the game.”
An exceptional student, Murray has found a way to take an academic approach to football. The fourth-year junior already holds an undergraduate degree in psychology. Now he’s well into his graduate studies in industrial-organizational psychology. It’s actually a doctoral program in which students can get a master’s degree along the way.
Murray has found a way to use his field of study to help him on the field of play. His first step was to write a paper on the leadership qualities of successful NFL quarterbacks. Murray studied quarterbacks such as Drew Brees of the Saints and Tom Brady of the Patriots and looked for similarities in their leadership qualities and styles of play.
This summer he took that project a step further. He fashioned the information he had gathered into a long and detailed survey. He distributed them to the entire team, coaches included.
“I wanted to assess my leadership skills and just figure out ways in which I could improve different aspects of my leadership,” Murray said. “One of my main goals coming into the season was to become the best leader I could be. So I got some great feedback.”
Murray figures 60 to 70 players returned the surveys. Some of them weren’t sure what to make of it.
“I was like, ‘why do we have to fill this out, man? I don’t want to do this,’” Bennett said with a laugh. “I think everybody on the team was thinking that.”
Said Richt: “I thought it took a little bravery to do that, to hear what your peers have to say, to hear what your coaches have to say. He was looking for a gut-level answer and he had to be willing to do something about it. I thought it was good.”
So what did Murray learn?
“The majority [of the feedback] was actually very good,” he said. “I think the one area that was lowest was me getting onto the guys more. Not being so nice, basically. So that was one improvement I needed to make. Sometimes you’ve got to get tough as a leader and make sure guys are focused and doing the right thing.”
Hard to argue with the production Georgia is getting out of Murray this season. He enters Saturday’s game against Tennessee ranked eighth in the nation in pass efficiency (182.43) and tops in the country among quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts in yards per attempt (10.5) and yards per completion (15.83).
Murray already has passed for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions. More important, he is directing an offense that leads the SEC in points (47.5 pg) and total yards (530 pg).
It’s unclear whether it’s the result of leadership surveys, hours in the film room or just the plain and simple fact that he will start his 32nd game as Georgia’s quarterback Saturday. More than likely it’s a combination of it all.
“Aaron has always done a great job of preparing himself and recognizing what’s going on,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo said. “He’s just kind of taken it to another level.”
It’s not like Murray had been dogging it. He established a school record with 35 touchdowns passes last season. Heading into Saturday’s game he needs just four more to surpass Greene’s record of 72 career TD passes.
“It took me four years to do that,” said Greene, who graduated in 2005, and now lives in Grayson and runs a corporate insurance business. “To do what he’s done over the three-year period has been phenomenal. He’s special. He’s doing something that’s never been done at the University of Georgia. We’ve been fortunate to have Aaron Murray.”
Yes, being a nerd can be cool.