ATHENS, Ga. -- Aaron Murray suffers from a perception problem -- one that stems from the disastrous results that too frequently have followed his turnovers this season.
Georgia's sophomore quarterback has posted serviceable passing numbers thus far, but his mistakes have often ended with opponents scoring points. Murray has been involved in eight turnovers -- six interceptions and two lost fumbles -- five of which directly or indirectly led to touchdowns by opponents.
Following a freshman season in which Georgia's coaches drilled into Murray's head the notion that he must protect the ball at all costs, they now say they must remind him to be more careful with his newfound freedom.
"Once you get through a season and gain confidence, you get more confident in making all the reads, and even the coaches give a guy more opportunity; it can bite you in the rear a little bit," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose Bulldogs (3-2 overall, 2-1 SEC) visit Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) this weekend. "So we've just got to make sure that he's making his reads, and when it's not there he's got to throw it away or take a sack."
Out of Murray's six interceptions, opponents returned two for scores -- most recently, Mississippi State's Darius Slay had a 72-yard return last weekend to give State its only touchdown in a 24-10 loss.
Previously, Georgia led South Carolina 20-14 in the third quarter when Murray and running back Isaiah Crowell botched a handoff exchange and Gamecocks defensive back Stephon Gilmore grabbed the loose ball and returned it 56 yards to Georgia's 5-yard line. Two plays later, Stephen Garcia rushed for an 8-yard touchdown that gave South Carolina the lead.
On the next series, Antonio Allen picked off a Murray pass at Georgia's 25 and returned it for a touchdown. In a matter of five plays, Georgia went from a six-point lead to an eight-point deficit.
Later in that game, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney sacked Murray, forcing a fumble that Melvin Ingram returned for a touchdown. That gave the Gamecocks a 45-35 lead with 3:12 to play.
Richt reminded reporters at Tuesday's media gathering, however, that Murray does not deserve the sole blame for the giveaways. Some were related to factors the quarterback could not control.
"When you throw interceptions, some of them do have to do with protection, some have to do with a bad decision, some have to do with a wild throw, and some have to do with a poor route," Richt said. "There's probably a little bit of all that in there, but I would say that we need to protect the passer a little better. I think Aaron has made a lot of tremendous plays with people breathing down his neck -- as soon as he releases the ball, getting hit in the mouth."
Without question, Murray has thrown under heavy pressure this season -- only Vanderbilt and Kentucky have allowed more sacks among SEC schools than Georgia's 13 -- but he is willing to shoulder the blame.
He simply needs to make better decisions, he said.
"They're all me, no matter what," Murray said. "If a guy runs something wrong or this or that, don't throw it; so it's all on me. I made those throws and put a couple out where they shouldn't have been and forced one at the end of the game into a coverage that just wasn't there. I just can't do that kind of stuff, and I just need to be more accurate on a couple of my throws and not give teams chances to make plays on them."
The preseason first-team All-SEC quarterback ranks third in the league in passing average (220 yards per game), pass efficiency (152.8 rating) and total offense (215 ypg) and has thrown for 1,100 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Murray is on pace to post passing numbers quite similar to those from his impressive freshman season, with the lone exception of interceptions. He threw only eight picks last year, so the increased total hurts his efforts to progress as a sophomore.
"I want to continue getting better. I don't want to stay the same," Murray said. "I don't want to be, 'Hey this is my good freshman year and that's it.' I want to improve on my abilities. I want to have this offense continue to improve, and as one of the leaders of the offense I need to continue working hard and wanting to get better and wanting this offense to get better.
"We haven't had all the games we've wanted to. I think the potential is there. There's definitely flashes where we look awesome, but we've just got to keep working. I think if we clean up a couple of things this offense is going to be pretty unstoppable."
While the change doesn't appear on a stat sheet, some of Murray's teammates detect a definite difference between this year's quarterback and the first-time starter who led the offensive huddle a year ago.
"I think his confidence level is a lot better," White said. "I think having a balanced run game, one that can take off and carry you when you're not having your best game, is really putting him at ease. He's smiling out there in the huddle, he's calm. He's not freaking out and feeling like he has to carry this whole team on his shoulders. I think that's been really important."
One improvement that is easier to measure is the end result.
Murray's passing stats might have dipped a bit, but he's the starting quarterback on a team with a winning record. This is the first time Murray can say that since leading the Bulldogs to victory in the 2010 opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
"I don't think it's really a step back," said Georgia tight end Orson Charles, also Murray's teammate at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. "I know he's disappointed because he's thrown a lot of picks, but we're winning and I know for a fact that's all he cares about. We both didn't come here to lose.
"He can have an amazing, record-setting year and we lose and it doesn't matter and nobody really cares. So we're winning right now and he's leading us to victory, and that's all that matters. I'm pretty sure he's excited about that."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.