ATHENS, Ga. -- As someone who both played quarterback and coached the position before he became Georgia’s head coach, Mark Richt naturally wants his offense to lean heavily on the passing game.
And when the Bulldogs feature experienced quarterbacks -- as they do now with third-year starter Aaron Murray -- Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s predisposition toward throwing the deep ball becomes most clear.
“If you have a quarterback that you have enough confidence to drop back and sling it, you’ve got a chance to make some big plays. We do like a vertical passing game,” Richt said. “There’s a lot of people that love to throw it sideways a lot, and we’ll throw it a little bit sideways here and there, but we want to get it down the field. And if we get some matchups that we like to go deep, we will.”
Through three games, Murray and the Bulldogs have already utilized the deep ball effectively -- an area where he excelled as a freshman in 2010, but regressed last season.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murray is 11-for-20 (55 percent) for 429 yards and three touchdowns on throws of 20 or more yards this season, with an average of 21.5 yards per attempt.
He completed 48.4 percent of his deep passes in 2010, including six touchdowns and one interception, before slipping back to 28.8 percent last year with 11 touchdowns and five picks.
There was an obvious difference between the first two seasons, Murray said, and it had nothing to do with his ability to execute the offense. Eventual first-round NFL draft pick A.J. Green made life much easier for then-freshman Murray before entering the draft after his standout 2010 season.
Now his success is based upon his growing knowledge of Georgia’s offensive scheme and his comfort level with his assortment of receivers.
“My freshman year, I think it was drop back and launch it to A.J. and just let him make a play," Murray said. "Now our playcall sheet right now compared to my freshman year is so much more complex and there are so many more different plays to get guys open across the whole field. It just opens things up and makes things a lot easier.”
In the Bulldogs’ 56-20 win against Florida Atlantic, Georgia had six different receivers -- Michael Bennett (67-yard long), Malcolm Mitchell (49), Justin Scott-Wesley (43), Arthur Lynch (36), Marlon Brown (34) and Tavarres King (28) -- catch a pass that covered 28 yards or more. In the first three games, all of them plus Rantavious Wooten have at least one catch of 36 yards or more.
King said Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Ken Malcome’s production in the running game is actually one of the most important factors in Georgia’s ability to throw deep because the tailbacks occupy opposing safeties’ attention and create favorable coverages for the receivers.
“We’ve got guys that can make plays down the field and having the backs that we have in Todd and Ken and Keith, those guys are phenomenal,” King said. “They help us out by running the ball very hard and being extremely effective in the running game. That just opens things up downfield for us.
“We’ve been able to make some plays downfield and do some great things and hopefully we can continue to do that and the coaches continue to have faith in us going downfield and making plays.”
They will as long as the Bulldogs keep connecting with such efficiency -- Murray ranks third among all FBS quarterbacks with 10.53 yards per pass attempt -- because it has certainly kept the skill position players happy so far.
“It’s real exciting,” said Bennett, who ranks fifth in the SEC with 88.3 receiving yards per game. “We’ve been getting into a lot of four-receiver sets and throwing the ball down the field a lot. It’s a receiver’s dream, really, so we’re just excited about what we can do this whole year.”
If Georgia’s tailbacks and offensive line continue to force opponents to respect the run, the receiving corps clearly includes multiple options for Murray to hit with deep passes. And as he continues to work with those wideouts, everyone develops a greater understanding of what to do and when to do it.
“There’s a fine line you walk of having confidence in yourself and going out there and just throwing aimlessly into coverages,” Murray said. “But the more reps you get, the more trust and confidence you have in yourself and the more the receivers know what’s going on.”
Murray has never looked more comfortable throwing the ball than he did against Florida Atlantic, against which he passed for a career-high 342 yards and averaged 24.4 yards per attempt.
He understands that the level of difficulty is about to increase this Saturday when Vanderbilt visits Sanford Stadium, followed by six more SEC games. That’s truly when Murray’s ability to connect with his receivers on deep passes might be the most important -- when the Bulldogs are locked in a close game and need a big play to swing momentum in their favor.
“There’s great strategy to it and it’s not easy to do, but when you get good at it, you can really shake some people up,” Richt said. “You can really put a hurting on some outstanding defenses -- and usually it’s the big play that will get a great defense a little bit uncomfortable to the point where you can break them down.
“It’s rare that you can just hammer a great defensive football team and make them submit. Somewhere along the line you’ve got to get a big play. It can be through the running game. It can be through the air, as well. But most big plays come through the air, at least for us.”