GREENSBORO -- The biggest question swirling around the Georgia football team focuses on the three-player quarterback battle. It’s the key to any story centered on the Bulldogs and for good reason.
Quarterback play -- regardless of the makeup of the remainder of the team -- plays a major factor in a game fully consumed by up-tempo and pass-first offenses.
After losing record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray after 2013 and Hutson Mason last year, head coach Mark Richt now faces a quarterback dilemma that added a new layer when Virginia senior Greyson Lambert transferred to Georgia last month.
“He’s had this situation happen a couple of times, so I think he knows how to handle it,” former Bulldogs quarterback D.J. Shockley said Wednesday at the second annual Enduring Hearts Georgia Celebrity Golf Classic.
Shockley pointed to his own experience with David Greene and the more recent battle between Murray and Zach Mettenberger.
“He knows how to distribute the reps, and he knows exactly at what point in time he has to say, ‘All right, guys, we’ve gotta make a decision,’ ” Shockley said.
And that decision became cloudier with the addition of Lambert. The senior transfer appeared in 10 of 13 games for Virginia last year, throwing for 1,632 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Faton Bauta, a junior, has never started a game in his first two years while Brice Ramsey -- the final member of the triumvirate -- saw minimal action near the end of last year as a freshman. Jacob Park left the Bulldogs the week after Lambert joined the program.
“You’ve got some very talented kids,” said Greene, a four-year starter at Georgia who now works for the SEC Network. “I’ve gone out and seen practice. You’ve got, no doubt, guys who can throw the football. What it’s going to take is consistency -- someone they can feel like they can go out there, that they know what to expect and that you can be steady.”
Greene mentioned a former saying of Richt’s -- “Don’t turn a bad play into a catastrophe” -- and believes the motto is the key to this year’s quarterback battle. Greene stressed that “you do have to play smart and you have to protect the football” while maintaining a level of aggression in today’s high-scoring game.
But the future signal-caller won’t be without help. Georgia boasts one of the best running games in the country, even after losing first-round NFL draft pick Todd Gurley. The Bulldogs registered the FBS’ 13th best rushing attack in 2014, rushing for 3,352 yards and 6.0 yards per carry.
After Gurley’s suspension and injuries, much of the load fell squarely onto the shoulders of freshman Nick Chubb, and he didn’t disappoint. Chubb returns for his second season in Athens after finishing with eight straight 100-yard games -- 1,323 yards total in those games -- to end the season.
While Greene says the quarterbacks will lean on the running game “as much as they can,” defensive coordinators in the SEC will not allow the Bulldogs to pound the ball down their throats.
“That’s the one thing I think that opponents will realize, as well, so they’re going to bring extra guys in the box to stop the run,” Greene said.
Eventually, the play of the quarterback will be the difference in football games -- the difference between winning and losing.
“There’s eventually going to be a third-and-long, and they’re going to have to make a play,” Shockley said. “And those guys are going to have to make a play, make a couple throws here and there to possibly win a game or possibly extend the game.”
That’s especially true in the SEC.
“If you don’t have good quarterback play, you’re not going to win in the SEC,” Greene said.
With the battle under way, Shockley -- who was the No. 2 quarterback in the country coming out of high school and didn’t start at Georgia until his senior year after sitting behind Greene -- simply advises the young quarterbacks to stay patient and continue to work and get better.
“Take every day in stride,” he said. “I would say make sure you capitalize on every moment, every rep and don’t take anything for granted.”
Greene held a different perspective about how the three quarterbacks should handle the test.
“You’ve got to put the team and university above your own agenda,” Greene said. “If all you’re worried about is your personal playing time and ‘What do I get out of this?’ you’re going to drive yourself nuts, and you’ll be miserable.”
Greene believes whichever player puts the team first will succeed. As for the success of the team, Greene has no expectations for the upcoming season because of the uncertainty in college football.
But Shockley expects greatness. Heading to Atlanta and playing in the SEC championship game should be the team’s goals.
“I expect the ultimate,” Shockley said. “I expect to see them in the national championship game because they have all the players, they have the tools, and they have the coaches.”