ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -For a season and a half, Matthew Stafford has been Georgia's quarterback, but not necessarily the Bulldogs' leader - more of a caretaker than a playmaker.
It's time for that to change.
``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.''
Stafford took the starting job for good midway through his freshman season. 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 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,'' Georgia coach Mark Richt said. ``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.''
The big guy throws a big fastball that requires an adjustment 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,'' freshman A.J. Green said.
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.
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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