Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray decided to return for his senior season and put the NFL on hold.
This was a good decision as far as a possible future at the next level is concerned, but it also gives him a realistic chance to win the Heisman Trophy. The Bulldogs haven't produced a Heisman winner since Herschel Walker back in 1982, and Murray has a great chance to end the drought.
While the Georgia quarterback has as good a chance as anybody, he is also the most interesting candidate entering the 2013 season.
While he has the goods to get the job done and the talent around him, Murray struggles with consistency. You really wonder which quarterback is going to show up any given week, making him a compelling player when he takes the field.
Can he put everything together and have a season for the ages?
Let's take a look at Murray at his best and then examine some of the things that he must work on not only to improve his draft stock, but to help get Georgia over the hump and put himself in position to win the most prestigious award in college football.
Murray at His Best
Murray actually has a lot more bright spots to his game than negatives. With a strong arm and more athletic than most give him credit for, it's no wonder why he is considered one of the top quarterbacks in college football. Here are a few ways in which Murray has shown exceptional skill over the years and how he could seriously take off and win this year's Heisman.
Here you see Georgia in an empty set with five wide receivers in a game against the Tennessee Volunteers. With the clock running down, the weak-side linebacker (square) is creeping towards the line to blitz. Murray sees this and adjusts the route of Malcolm Mitchell (circled).
Mitchell immediately runs a slant route right towards the spot the blitzing linebacker would have been, making for an easy pitch-and-catch. The play resulted in a 10-yard gain, making for a much more manageable third-down attempt.
Having great instincts and being able to read and react to what a defense is able to do is one of his strong points. Attribute it to experience or just chalk it up to a high football IQ, being able to read what the defense wants to do and adjust the offense accordingly makes things that much more difficult for opposing defenders. It also increases the offense's chances of being that much more successful.
Another thing that I think Murray does better than any other quarterback in the country is sell the play-action pass.
Here you see Georgia in a single-set back formation against Auburn on a first-and-goal, a situation where a team would usually run the football. You are going to see Murray snap the ball and really sell the play-action with a strong reaction to the running back, where he puts a little extra on the fake handoff.
Murray does a good job of hiding the ball away from the defenders, fooling the entire second level of the Auburn defense. Everybody bit on this play, leaving the entire middle of the field open for an easy touchdown.
This results in an easy score and has resulted in many big plays throughout his career. Of course, it helps having a loaded backfield that is capable of shredding a defense, as it forces the defenders to respect the run and bite at potential running plays.
However, it also helps when the quarterback isn't lazy with the play fake and does a good job selling it. Look for a ton of play action this season, as it will continue to be where Murray is most effective.
What Hurts Murray
If we are talking about his NFL draft stock, the thing that probably hurts Murray the most is the fact that he is nowhere near 6'2". Even with smaller quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Russell Wilson shattering the stereotypes, this will continue to be an issue with NFL teams.
As far as Heisman talks are concerned, we have two issues, and one of them has to do with the fact that he tries too hard at times.
In the Outback Bowl against the Michigan State Spartans, Georgia is lined up in a shotgun formation. The offense must pick up 12 yards to keep the chains moving, so the majority of the receivers are running deep routes in hopes of reaching the first-down mark. However, the receiver at the top of your screen is running a curl route.
Michigan State defender Denicos Allen absolutely bullies his way through the offensive line and is breathing down the neck of Murray. It is quite clear at this point that throwing the ball deep and picking up the first down isn't a high possibility. As you can see, the receiver that ran the curl route is wide open for a positive gain, but Murray still has his eyes downfield, trying a bit too hard to pick up the first down.
You can clearly see that once Murray is wrapped up, the receiver is still open towards the sidelines. Would he have picked up the yards to move the chains? Probably not. But a positive gain is much better than a sack. As a coach, I would also want the positive play in this situation because my quarterback wouldn't be taking a hit.
Will Aaron Murray win the Heisman Trophy?
Sometimes it is OK to punt the football and try again next time. But what you should never be cool with is holding onto the football too long and taking a sack when a receiver is open. Holding onto the football when there are other options available tells me you are trying too hard, and that's when mistakes take place. Get the positive gain, punt the ball, avoid taking an unnecessary hit and we'll regroup on the sidelines.
The other factor that hurts Murray the most is his struggles in big games. Georgia fans don't need to be reminded when it comes to this, but the Bulldogs are a combined 4-10 against ranked opponents in the three years Murray has started. He has come up short many times in big games, whether it was because of interceptions or making brutal decisions (don't click if you are a Georgia fan) at the end of games that play a big role in the outcome.
Murray has become the Tony Romo of college football. He is somebody who puts up incredible numbers and will win you a lot of games in the regular season, but he completely folds in pressure situations and big moments. According to Seth Emerson of the Telegraph, Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN had this concern when Murray was optioning whether or not to leave for the NFL:
The thing working against Murray is in some of the big games he had some struggles. Obviously against Alabama he didn't get the win, but he was right there with them the whole way. And of course you think about the height, what's he gonna measure out at: Is he gonna be six feet, a little over it, what exactly is he gonna be? He's not gonna be 6-2, 6-3. And of course this quarterback year is pretty wide open.
If you can't win the marquee matchups, folks are going to question whether you will be able to hack it at the next level. And if you can't come up big in the clutch moments, you certainly aren't going to win the Heisman Trophy. Due to him coming up short in these situations, it makes you wonder if Murray truly is a Heisman candidate, especially with Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Florida on this year's schedule.
We knew that Murray was an interesting player due to the upside he brings to the table and the questions surrounding his performances in big games. It is these same traits that make him the most interesting Heisman candidate of the 2013 season.