Mett and Murray… the Journey Begins

ATHENS - It was always the same drill. At the end of every practice session during the spring, Georgia's offense would face off against its defense in 11-on-11 drills, and freshman quarterbacks Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray would be thrown to the wolves.

The two players came to Georgia with impressive credentials and turned down a bevy of suitors in order to play for the Bulldogs, but the fact remained – both were supposed to be in high school still, enjoying those final precious months of life as a normal teenager.

Instead, both enrolled early. Both stepped squarely into the spotlight of what was – amid a litany of injuries at other key positions – one of the most intriguing spring depth-chart battles. Both stepped onto the field against the Georgia defense – players who had done this before and who planned on serving up a hearty dose of humility to the two freshmen – with just a few weeks of playbook memorization to fall back on.

"When Zach and I get out there in 11-on-11, usually the whole defensive side is chanting and going crazy trying to rattle us a little bit," Murray said.

The coaches were watching, judging.

Their offensive teammates were crossing their fingers, hoping for the best but knowing not to expect much.

And the defense – those guys just wanted blood.

In the earliest stages of an exceptionally delicate relationship, the two competitors had no choice but to rely on each other. The were battling for their separate futures, but they needed each other to survive their current circumstances.

"If anybody knows what we're going through, it would be the other one, just because we're in the same shoes right now," Mettenberger said. "We're just trying to help each other out and learn as much as possible."

Murray and Mettenberger spent the spring going toe to toe, for position on the depth chart and, in many ways, for control of a future that could potentially give the victor a leg up for playing time for the next four years.

Murray was one of the top players in Florida.

Both quarterbacks were participants in last year's Elite 11 camp, which features the top high-school passers in the country. Both have their sights set on starting – likely not this season, but soon. Both have tons of potential.

Most importantly, however, both are freshmen whose careers will unfold along parallel lines throughout the next four years.

With fifth-year senior Joe Cox penciled in as the team's starter for 2009, neither Murray or Mettenberger expects to see a lot of action right off the bat, and it is certainly possible that both will redshirt this season. But the competition between the two isn't about 2009. It's about what comes later. It's about who will have a chance to play – perhaps for as long as four seasons – and who will ride the bench, waiting for an opportunity that may never come.

But both quarterbacks know what's at stake, and it's part of the reason they came to Georgia in the first place.

"We each knew coming in we were going to be going up against another top quarterback, but you have to compete no matter where you are in the country," Murray said. "We're going out there to compete and make ourselves better, and in the end, it's going to make the team better and that's our main goal now."

It's a delicate relationship that head coach Mark Richt has managed before.

In his first seasons as Georgia's coach, Richt presided over an offense led by quarterback David Greene, who completed his career as college football's all-time winningest passer. Behind Greene on the bench, however, was super prospect D.J. Shockley, who quietly waited four years for his chance to be the starter, then led Georgia to an SEC title in his fifth season after Greene departed.

Cox has followed a similar path. He came to Athens with impressive enough credentials, but found himself behind flame-thrower Matthew Stafford for the past three seasons. Now that Stafford is in the NFL, Cox has his chance to start as a fifth-year senior.

Down the depth chart behind Cox and sophomore Logan Gray are Murray and Mettenberger, fully aware of what could be in store for them in the future.

And yet, like Greene and Shockley, Cox and Stafford, the two freshmen have managed to find the balance – at least so far – between ardent competitors and new friends.

"To me, it's very healthy to compete, but it's also very healthy to have a respect for each other," Richt said. "I think they respect and maybe even admire the other guy's ability. There's no reason those two shouldn't be very good friends, because they're both very solid, smart, competitive, good people."

The competition for playing time provides one obstacle to the burgeoning friendship between Murray and Mettenberger, but it's hardly the only one.

Mettenberger grew up as a fan of the Dawgs.

As with all college freshmen, there's an adjustment period. For the first time, they're away from home, sharing living quarters and, with three classes together in the spring along with practice and film study, they're spending nearly every waking hour together.

"I think off the field they get along fine," Gray said. "They live together, so they probably get enough of each other."

There are issues, to be sure. Murray is a bit of a neat freak. Mettenberger has a more relaxed attitude toward housekeeping.

Mettenberger is from Athens, which gives him ample chance to visit his family for a nice home-cooked meal. Murray's a long way from home and has to make the best of his newfound living quarters.

Both spend hours in the weight room, film room and on the practice field, but when they get home, Murray's ready for bed while his roommate spends a bit more time unwinding.

"We're usually pretty dead or have tutoring, so when we get back, we usually just watch TV," Murray said. "We might talk about practice or how it went, but we pretty much pass out. Or at least I do."

As different as the two may be in terms of personality, their football pedigree is nearly as divergent.

Murray comes from Plant High School in Tampa, FL, one of the top programs in the nation. He played alongside fellow Georgia recruit Orson Charles on a team that also featured the son of legendary NFL coach Tony Dungy. His team won a state title and played on national television. The fleet-footed Murray was the poster boy for a flashy offense.

Mettenberger grew up a Georgia fan and played high school in Watkinsville, a small program that struggled to garner regional attention, let alone national prominence. While Murray was lauded as the prototype for the new generation of mobile quarterbacks, Mettenberger has been criticized for poor footwork and speed that more closely rivals the offensive linemen who are blocking for him. What Mettenberger does have, however, is a cannon for an arm, making him a bit closer in resemblance to the pure pocket passer Stafford had been for the past three seasons as Georgia's quarterback.

While their games hardly resemble one another, their attitudes blend perfectly.

Murray enrolled early, which meant Mettenberger did, too. If one is in the film room, the other is, too. The playbook is regular reading material for both, and they are each eager to share what they've learned with the other.

"A lot of times Coach (Mike) Bobo will give us a test or something, and we'll have to take that home. We definitely help each other out on that," Mettenberger said. "We'll quiz each other to try to keep a mental edge on things."

They're a bit of an odd couple for sure, but that mental edge is what makes them a perfect match.

Both quarterbacks came to Georgia to start, but they're aware the likelihood is only one will have the career they dreamed about. For now, however, that doesn't matter.

Despite all their talent, neither Murray nor Mettenberger is ready to step onto the field as the starter, at least not yet. But that will change, and that's what makes playing alongside Mettenberger so great, Murray said.

The competition could drive them apart, but instead, it's making them better.

"I think both of us are in the mind-set now that we're going to do whatever it takes to be quarterback for the University of Georgia," Murray said. "No one can tell what the future's going to bring. All you can do right now is just work hard. We'll see what happens the next couple years, but right now we're just working hard, learning the playbook and having fun working together."

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