JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Aaron Murray threw two interceptions in a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida that concluded a 6-7 season in 2010, but the Georgia Bulldogs knew they had a good quarterback moving forward.
They feel the same way now.
Hutson Mason made just his second career start in Wednesday's Gator Bowl against Nebraska, and he suffered his first setback in the 24-19 loss to the Cornhuskers. The redshirt junior guided an offense that managed just one touchdown at a rainy EverBank Field, but he will shift into a senior leadership role with the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates.
"Hutson is a great football player and a great person and a great leader for our team," coach Mark Richt said. "I've got a lot of faith in how he'll do in the future. Hutson has always been an extremely hard worker, and I think one of the fastest ways you can earn respect from your teammates is how you work and your knowledge of the game. Our guys have seen him in big games already, and they know he can get it done."
Mason became Georgia's starter when Murray, the Southeastern Conference's all-time passing leader in completions, yards and touchdowns, tore an ACL in the 11th game against Kentucky. Mason helped finish off the Wildcats in a 59-17 rout, and his first start resulted in a 41-34 double-overtime win at Georgia Tech, a game in which the Bulldogs trailed 20-0 midway through the second quarter.
The Bulldogs trailed Nebraska 24-12 entering the fourth quarter, but Mason emerged from early-game hesitancy to lead a fourth-quarter surge that consisted of 21 plays for 163 yards. He completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to tailback Todd Gurley and then led Georgia inside Nebraska's 20-yard line twice in the final five minutes, but dropped passes prevented the Bulldogs from pulling ahead.
"Hutson is a guy who will continue to get better every game," senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. "Obviously going into his senior year, it's his team and it's his opportunity to lead the 2014 Georgia Bulldogs, and I think he'll do a good job of that. I had two drops of throws that were right on the money, and Hutson is one of those guys where this time next year, everybody is going to say, 'Whoa, I knew Hutson was good, but I didn't know he was that good.'
"My expectations for him are really high. With the guys coming back on defense and the injured guys coming back healthy, I don't see any reason why Hutson can't match the single-season numbers that Murray was putting up."
Lynch, Murray, left tackle Kenarious Gates and guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette are out of eligibility with the Bulldogs, but Gurley and Keith Marshall headline the returning tailbacks, with Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley back at receiver. The only scheduled departure defensively is tackle Garrison Smith, and the specialists return, including All-SEC kicker Marshall Morgan, who ended his sophomore season with 17 consecutive made field goals.
The secondary has to improve drastically for Georgia to regain the form that resulted in 22 victories during the 2011 and '12 seasons before this season's slide to 8-5, but Mason has eased some concerns at quarterback. In two starts, the 6-foot-3, 202-pounder from Marietta threw for 619 yards and directed an offense that racked up 843 yards.
"Hutson is a fiery leader, and he's going to be preparing this team for 2014," Conley said. "I believe he played a great game given the conditions and what he had to deal with. We just need to do a better job of supporting our quarterback."
Said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo: "He did some good things on a sloppy day, but everybody was falling around out there. He gave us a chance to win the ballgame. It's been a learning experience for him, and it's one I'm glad he got."
Mason also is appreciative of having more experience than he expected entering his final go-around. He will be the third quarterback under Richt to have just his senior season with the reins, joining D.J. Shockley in 2005 and Joe Cox in '09.
Shockley led the Bulldogs to their most recent SEC championship, while Cox produced the same 8-5 record that Mason just finished in relief of Murray.
"It's been a big blessing," Mason said. "By no means am I happy that Aaron got hurt, but it's been a great opportunity to get two games under my belt, and I think it's huge for next season."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.