ATHENS — As a high school senior, Matthew Stafford threw for more than 4,000 yards.
He’s not likely to duplicate those lofty numbers with No. 2 Georgia, not with a runner such as Knowshon Moreno lining up behind him in the backfield.
Is Stafford ever jealous of those quarterbacks who put it up 40 or 50 times a game?
"I had my fair share of that in high school," he said with a shrug.
"It doesn’t matter to me anymore."
Indeed, Stafford has come a long way since that cocky freshman stepped on the field in his very first college game, believing his arm was strong enough to make any throw.
He soon learned the defenders at this level are a lot quicker and smarter than those he lit up at Highland Park High School in Dallas. As a freshman, Stafford threw nearly twice as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (seven), but he gained a valuable insight into how the college game works.
It doesn’t matter how many times you throw it, or even how many yards you put up. What matters is making the most of every pass — and walking off the field a winner.
"I just want to do what I can to help this team win," said Stafford, who is 19-4 as Georgia’s starter. "I’m trying to be efficient and not turn the ball over. Then we’ll see what happens at the end of the day."
As a sophomore, Stafford flipped around his touchdown-to-interception ratio (19-to-10), improved his completion percentage (53 percent to 56 percent) and passed for 2,523 yards.
Of course, that was a far cry from the numbers put up by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, playing right down the road at Florida. He threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns, not to mention his rushing totals (895 yards, 23 touchdowns).
Stafford doesn’t have to take on such a one-man role for the Bulldogs. Moreno rushed for 1,334 yards as a redshirt freshman and is off to another dazzling start this season, which fulfills coach Mark Richt’s goal to have a balanced offense.
"I’m just trying to be more consistent," Stafford said. "That’s the biggest deal for me. I’m trying to make sure I complete all the short-to-intermediate passes. I’ve been doing that well so far."
Indeed, while Moreno got most of the highlight time for hurdling over a Central Michigan defender last weekend, Stafford has another solid performance in guiding the Bulldogs to a 56-17 victory. He completed 18 of 28 passes for 213 yards and two more TDs.
Through two games, Stafford has connected on more than 63 percent of his throws for an average of 244 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The brash Texan is now the unabashed leader of one of the nation’s best teams.
"He’s a smart guy, and he’s grown a lot," receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. "He’s experienced a lot and he’s a lot more mature. He can handle a lot more than he has before. That just comes with time for any player."
Richt’s offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, has certainly given Stafford more responsibility on the field. The quarterback has nearly unlimited authority when he steps to the line, surveys the defense and decides which play will work best.
If it’s the one Bobo sent in, Stafford will stick with the call. If the defense lines up in some unexpected formation, he’ll call a different play.
He’s rarely wrong, according to Richt.
"There’s very few times we say, ‘Just run this play no matter what,’" the head coach said. "Most teams call the cadence, then the quarterback looks at the coach over and over and over. We don’t do that. We let Matthew do it. He understands it. He also has a better view than we do. We trust his judgment."
Only once in the first two games did Stafford check into the wrong play, the coaches say. That’s a percentage the Bulldogs can certainly live with, though their quarterback is such a perfectionist he won’t be happy until every call is the right one.
"He does a great job of getting us in the right play," Richt said. "The first year, we didn’t ask him to do that too much. Now, it’s at least half the plays if not more. He’s always making some kind of decision, whether it’s a protection decision or a run-pass decision."
After easy wins over Georgia Southern and Central Michigan, the Bulldogs will face their first difficult test on Saturday — the Southeastern Conference opener at South Carolina (1-1).
In an interesting twist, Williams-Brice Stadium is where Stafford’s college career really got off the ground two years ago. He took over at quarterback after starter Joe Tereshinski went down with an injury — and showed his inexperience with three interceptions.
The Gamecocks will be facing a much different Stafford this weekend.
"Obviously, he’s matured a lot," cornerback Asher Allen said. "He’s making great passes and great decisions. He manages the game really well. It’s just fun to be on the same team with him."