When Matthew Stafford leads the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs onto the field at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday against South Carolina, it will be a different, headier quarterback than the Gamecocks are used to seeing.
The Bulldog nation certainly hopes so.
As a freshman against South Carolina, Stafford came off the bench and completed 8-of-19 passes for a respectable 171 yards, but with three interceptions. Last year, Stafford struggled again, completing just 19-of-44 passes for 213 yards with one pick as the Bulldogs dropped a 16-12 decision before a shocked house at Sanford Stadium.
This time it's a confident, self-assured quarterback that will face the Gamecocks, one who's not only confident in his physical ability, but also with his ability as a leader to check in and out of almost any play that's enabled him to stand out among his peers. Will that knowledge and ability make a difference against a Gamecock team hungry for a win after being upset by Vanderbilt last week? Stafford's counting on it.
"I think we can do more than we did last year. Last year we were putting in a new offense that we had just put in during the spring and there was a bunch of different terminology, blocking schemes and things like that," Stafford said. "That was different for us and tough to execute against such a good defense. I personally didn't play well at all and that really hurt us."
So far in 2008, Stafford hasn't been subject to the kind of inconsistencies that hurt he and Bulldogs in last year's game.
In Georgia's wins over Georgia Southern and Central Michigan, Stafford has completed over 63 percent of his passes (31-for-49) for 488 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
But it's just not just the statistics that make head coach Mark Richt smile.
With his third year in the program, Stafford has become an expert when it comes to executing the Bulldog offense by knowing when and how to check out of certain situations, be it with the run or the pass.
"That helps us a lot and his role has definitely increased in his ability to make changes at the line of scrimmage. There are very few runs nowadays that we'll call and say run this play no matter what," Richt said. "We do it sometimes but not very often and when we do it, it's sometimes a short yardage goal line or something that's tied into a lot of shifts and motions where you don't have time to be at the line and do all those changes."
More often than not, it's the right call.
In fact, Richt said he can count on one finger the number of incorrect calls that Stafford has made thus far this season.
"Most teams will call their cadence and then you'll see that quarterback look to the coach over and over and over. We don't do that. We let Matthew decide because he understands it and because he really has a better view than we do," Richt said. "We trust his judgment. I think he's made one decision where he didn't make the right call. And he's doing this 30, 40 times a game."
It actually took Stafford a second to recall the play that Richt was thinking about.
"I know last week there was one when we actually had it blocked on a run and I didn't think we did so I checked the other way. We ended up getting a couple of yards, but I didn't have to do it, I guess." Stafford said. "As far as checking off, I'm doing that a little more this year, just as far as numbers-wise and how many times I'm doing it. But it's something that I enjoy and it's good for us as a team."
There's another reason for Stafford's jump in completions. Richt said Tuesday receivers have done a much better job on their routes and their understanding of the offense is greater than it was this time a year ago.
The statistics indicate this to be true.
Stafford has completed passes for 11 different players thus far, including eight different wide receivers, with Mohamed Massaquoi and Mike Moore leading the way with eight and seven grabs, respectively.
"It's just due to everybody working hard the offseason," Massaquoi said. "Our strength coaches did a great job of getting us to work hard this whole offseason physically and we also took the challenge of preparing ourselves mentally to get ready for this year.
Stafford too has noticed the change.
"They're doing a great job. They've been making plays and catching alls all over the field. It's a testament to them that so many of them are getting catches. It feels like a bunch of different guys are making catches anyway. It's great to see them producing."
Stafford concedes his comfort level is greater than ever before.
"That's the biggest deal for me," Stafford said. "I'm just trying to make sure I compete all of the short- to intermediate-range passes and doing that pretty well so far."