ATHENS — Back when Aaron Murray was a Florida high school player deciding where to play college football, he spent a lot of time on the Florida campus in Gainesville. Tim Tebow showed him around. There was also a quarterback on the roster named Cam Newton.
Murray never took an official visit to Florida, because he didn’t need to, having grown up in Tampa and having attended numerous Gators games. And he was wanted by Florida, the national powerhouse with the offense that seemed to suit Murray’s skills.
But when Murray makes his Jacksonville debut this Saturday, the quarterback will be suiting up for the other half of the rivalry: Georgia.
“Both schools are great schools,” Murray said. “Great teams and great coaches. A lot of tradition at both places. But in the end it was just a gut feeling. My heart just felt like Georgia was the place for me.”
So far the Bulldogs are elated with Murray’s choice. Twice this year he has been named SEC freshman of the week. He has thrown for 12 touchdowns and rushed for four and has been picked off just three times in eight starts.
Florida, meanwhile, is finding life after Tebow pretty difficult. John Brantley (180.9 passing yards per game, six touchdowns, five interceptions) is not a dual threat. He has minus-52 rushing yards this year. So the Gators have been playing Trey Burton, who has eight rushing touchdowns, but has as many interceptions (one) as completions.
Murray, with his running abilities, would have been a good fit for Florida’s spread option attack. But he went with the pro-style offense run by Georgia head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
“I know Florida wanted him and I know that was definitely a very exciting thing for him to think about, for him to play at Florida,” Richt said. “I’m not exactly sure what the turning point was.”
Murray said he wasn’t as torn as one would think for a Tampa youth: His father actually grew up in New York, and his mom was born in Maine then moved to Miami when she was young. An uncle is a Florida fan and gives him a hard time, but that’s about it.
In fact, Murray has family in Snellville — an aunt, uncle and cousins — and Murray spends Thanksgiving there every other year. His options extended to the West Coast: UCLA was his third choice, his mom was pushing Stanford, and he also considered California.
“I was open to going anywhere,” Murray said. “I was looking for the best fit for me, I wasn’t really too scared of traveling or leaving home.”
Murray committed to Georgia in April of his junior year. At the time, Florida had Newton, who was eventually dismissed from the team following an arrest. Now at Auburn, Newton is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.
Asked if Newton’s presence played a role in his decision, Murray said he didn’t “remember too much of the recruiting process.” He had the same answer when asked if Florida head coach Urban Meyer tried to sell him on his ability to run the spread option.
But the quarterback didn’t hide the importance of his first game against the Gators.
“When you’re preparing in the offseason, it’s a game you circle on your calendar,” Murray said. “You may work a little harder when you think about that game. Being from the state of Florida, it does add a little bit more. I’m definitely excited to be going back there.”