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Stafford stepping up as leader for No. 1 Georgia
University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford warms up during the first day of practice in Athens. Georgia, ranked number one in the preseason coaches poll, opens its season against Georgia Southern on Saturday. - photo by John Amis | The Associated Press

ATHENS — Georgia is No. 1 in the nation, but quarterback Matthew Stafford has been no better than No. 2 in the Southeastern Conference, where Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow returns at Florida.

Stafford has been working to change the pecking order of top SEC quarterbacks this season. Evidence of his commitment can be seen in his leaner body and more focused approach, and his teammates have noticed.

Stafford no longer is thought of as the new kid in town. Instead, the junior is the Bulldogs’ new leader.

It’s a role he seems eager to embrace, and it’s a role his teammates are glad to see him assume.

"I feel like it’s my team, my offense and I’m taking that role," Stafford said. "I think guys understand that and they’re buying into it this summer and I’m excited and getting ready for this year and trying to help guys out as much as I can."

In a way, this has been Stafford’s team since the midpoint of his 2006 freshman season, when he took the starting job for good. But as Stafford learned and earned the respect of teammates, other more experienced players, including running back Thomas Brown and offensive lineman Fernando Velasco, held leadership roles.

Now it’s Stafford’s turn. He’s a veteran of 21 starts and says he is ready to guide the team through a season of unprecedented expectations.

Georgia, which finished No. 2 in last year’s final poll, is No. 1 in the preseason polls for the first time. That brings new attention and responsibility to Stafford, and senior receiver Mohammed Massaquoi says the big quarterback is ready for the big challenge.

"It’s a growth process and a maturing process," Massaquoi said. "He’s been through his ups and downs, and I think he has taken over a leadership mentality. He’s the face, really, not only of our offense but of our whole program."

Stafford, listed as 6-foot-3 and 237 pounds, came to Georgia from Dallas as one of the top recruits in the nation, but he looked like he might grow into an offensive guard instead of a top quarterback.

Stafford shed his baby fat with an offseason of hard work and healthy food.

"He’s very conscious about what he’s been eating," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "He’s been doing a very good job of staying with the lean foods. His body is lean. He’s probably still around 230 pounds. He’s still very strong and he’s cut, not that there was a lot of fat, but he’s just more trim. It’s very noticeable to me."

Stafford is still a big guy. Big frame. Big shoulders. Big legs. Big, strong arm.

"He is bigger than you think," Richt said. "He’s taller than you think, and he’s big everywhere, his legs and even his feet and hands and forearms and shoulders. He’s just broad. But he’s in great condition."

The big guy throws a big fastball that requires an adjustment period for new receivers.

"In high school I didn’t have a quarterback who put this much heat on it, so I have to get used to it," said freshman A.J. Green.

Green had to learn the hard way about Stafford’s arm strength.

"I was relaxing and my hands were relaxing and the ball just shot through and hit me right in the face," Green said.

Stafford showed more strength than accuracy early in his career. Georgia’s turnaround after a slow start in 2006 mirrored Stafford’s improved touch and accuracy.

Stafford threw 13 interceptions with seven touchdowns as a freshman. He had 10 interceptions and 19 touchdown passes last season, when he completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards.

There’s a surprising shortage of seniors — including none on the offensive line — for a top-ranked team, but it’s not as if Stafford has to lead alone. Georgia also boasts one of the top running backs in the nation in sophomore Knowshon Moreno, who could receive more national attention than the quarterback through the season.

As Brown dealt with injuries in his 2007 senior season, Moreno emerged as the Bulldogs’ top running threat as a redshirt freshman.

Moreno delighted fans with his big plays and spin moves as he rushed for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns. It was the best season for a Georgia freshman tailback since Herschel Walker.

Moreno has help from redshirt freshman Caleb King and true freshman Richard Samuel at tailback, but Georgia also boasts a talented and deep group of receivers.

Stafford could have more passing opportunities, especially if defenses focus on Moreno.

"We have some receivers who can catch and plus Stafford can definitely throw the ball," Moreno said. "That’s going to help us out this season, that we can run the ball at the same time as pass.

"Everyone will get their share. We have a lot of backs but at the same time a lot of people can make things happen. It will just be interesting to see what everybody can do."

Stafford says Georgia’s offense should be balanced and dangerous.

"I think we have a great chance to be pretty explosive both running and passing," he said. "If the line opens holes, we’ve got backs who can make things happen. And if they protect, we’ve got receivers who can run by some folks."

And now, Georgia has a quarterback who’s ready to lead.

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