Nearly 16 years later, D.J. Shockley doesn’t mince any words about that particular game.
Despite this reporter’s best efforts to soft-pedal the questions around the 2004 Georgia-Georgia Tech game, it really is hard to dance around how he played. Shockley, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from his own brutal assessment of how he performed that chilly November afternoon.
He used words like “terrible” and “awful” and then “terrible” again.
“I was terrible in that game, man, just say it,” said the former Georgia quarterback with a laugh. “You’re trying to be so nice, but it’s OK to say I was terrible.”
Fair enough, but there were several contributing factors at work. That day, the temperature at kickoff in Sanford Stadium was 46 degrees with a supposed slight chance of rain. Well, there was nothing slight about the elements that day.
The rain came down steadily throughout the game, including a few brief periods of sheets of water cascading across the field. The temperature dipped as well, mixing with the frigid rain to make for miserable conditions more suitable for a January in Sussex than a fall Saturday in Athens.
“It was cold and rainy, and it’s a rivalry game, so that’s tough for anyone,” said David Greene, a four-year starting quarterback for Georgia.
Though forgettable for a variety of reasons, both intentional and accidental, the game would prove to be a seminal moment in the journey of both players. It would signify the passing of the torch from Greene, who left the school as the all-time winningest quarterback in NCAA history, to Shockley, a much-heralded recruit who had patiently waited for his turn to lead the Bulldogs.
The tales of the two players have been intertwined since they both set foot on campus, and they both were at the helm during a historic run for Georgia, highlighted by three SEC East titles, two SEC Championships and four straight bowl victories.
Thanks to the value of hindsight, we also can see how their joint experiences in that rainy, miserable game marked a crucial moment for a program at the crossroads, while also giving us a glimpse at a scenario that is virtually extinct in today’s college football landscape.
“I honestly think that game probably fueled his fire,” Greene said. “He’s probably thinking, ‘Look man, if this is going to be my team, then I’m going to have to take it to the next level.’”
For Shockley, there was motivation, but also uncertainty.
“Going into that last year, I had so much to prove because I played so terrible in that Georgia Tech game,” Shockley said. “I doubted myself at times. I was like, dude, did you lose some of your good stuff while you were sitting around the last two or three years?”
Taking advantage of an opportunity
Greene’s path to being a Bulldog can be credited to the studious eye of former Georgia coach, Jim Donnan. Prior to his junior season in high school, Greene attended a camp hosted by the team, and the steady southpaw flashed glimpses of what Bulldogs fans would come to appreciate during his career in Athens — minimal mistakes, solid reads and an effective, efficient effort.
Those traits were on full display that week, and it earned him a request to join Donnan in his office at the end of camp where the coach extended a full scholarship offer, the first for the South Gwinnett standout.
“I’m always grateful to Coach Donnan for believing in me because the hardest thing to do sometimes is get the first offer,” Greene said. “That’s someone sticking their neck out for you, and he did. He truly believed I could play.”
His ability to play was never in doubt, and neither was his interest in Georgia. He admitted he wasn’t a big fan of the recruiting process and opted to commit to the Bulldogs midway through his senior season so he could focus on his final year of high school.
Greene was a star in both football and baseball for the Comets. On the gridiron, he excelled for legendary Georgia high school coach T. McFerrin and led the team to a pair of Class AAAA playoff appearances. He threw for 2,102 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior season, garnering him all-state honors and a spot on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Super 11.
Committing early enabled Greene to focus more fully on his upcoming spring baseball season and, in his words, “be a kid and hang out with my buddies” one last time.
He redshirted at Georgia for the 2000 season, which proved to be a tumultuous one for the team. After earning ample preseason acclaim heading into the season, including a Top 10 ranking from the Associated Press, the Bulldogs stumbled early against South Carolina. Off-the-field chatter about the team’s discipline, as well as a season-ending hand injury to starting quarterback Quincy Carter, shelved those lofty aspirations.
Losses to key rivals — including three consecutive to Florida and Georgia Tech — ushered in an abrupt end to the Donnan era. The 8-4 record was a disappointment, but Greene said the season proved invaluable to his development.
“It was a good learning experience to be able to understand the process of how long the season is, what it really takes to succeed, what does SEC football look like up close and personal and all of that,” he said. “It was a great learning experience for me because it really helped me when Coach (Mark) Richt got here.”
Eager to reinvigorate the program, the Bulldogs tabbed Richt, a 42-year-old offensive coordinator from Florida State with two national titles on his resume, to take the program’s reins. As with any new coach, he made recruiting a priority from the start, and his eyes were set on a different quarterback in College Park, Georgia.
The prodigy turned heralded recruit
Consider some charity enjoyed by his father as a primary reason why D.J. Shockley wound up in Athens.
After his freshman year in high school, the youngster attended Florida State’s football camp. However, rather than participate in drills and skills challenges with players his age, his father signed him up for the junior and senior division. Despite the obvious age differences, Shockley shined when the spotlight was on him.
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“By the end of camp, Coach Richt was asking my dad about me,” Shockley said. “He wanted to take more of a look at me. That’s how it came out that I was only a ninth grader!”
Richt wasn’t alone in seeking the services of the talented dual-threat quarterback. By his senior season at North Clayton, Shockley had established himself as the top prospect at his position in the country. He earned All-American honors with Parade Magazine and USA Today, and SuperPrep ranked him as its top quarterback. In his final two seasons, he threw for more than 3,200 yards and ran for nearly 1,600.
At Florida State, Richt was one of the architects of the Seminoles’ “fast break offense” which helped earn Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke Heisman Trophies while also producing copious amounts of points. Shockley was long viewed in Tallahassee circles as the next in line of legendary quarterbacks to be groomed by Richt.
“That was the number one reason why I wanted to play for him,” Shockley said. “On one spectrum, you’ve got this drop-back guy who he turned into a Heisman winner in Chris Weinke, but he’s also got this dual-threat guy in Charlie Ward who was similar to me. I said this guy can coach both styles, and that is the kind of coach I want to play for.”
Upon taking the head coach job at Georgia, Richt made Shockley one of his top targets, and it didn’t take long for the QB to become the new coach’s first commit, putting him on campus as a true freshman the same time Greene’s redshirt year ended. It figured to be a battle for quarterback that some felt tilted toward Shockley, which was fine with him.
“My mindset was that I wanted to come in and be the starter,” Shockley said. “I want to be the guy, and I think that’s how kids should think. I feel like when you come into a major university like that, if you don’t think you come in here and play and be the guy, there’s no reason for you to come in and compete.”
A new beginning for everyone
Richt’s arrival meant an entirely new playbook, which put all the quarterbacks, as well as all position players, back at square one. Though Cory Phillips had earned ample playing time in 2000 filling in for the injured Carter, the talent evident in the quarterback room made the race for the starting job wide open.
Incidentally enough, the “fast break offense” had been born just an hour down the road in Atlanta. In 1992, Florida State, trailing Georgia Tech 21-7 in the fourth quarter, opted to go no-huddle and let Ward call plays out of the shotgun. The Seminoles rallied to win 29-24 with the quarterback tallying 206 yards on their final three scoring drives of the night.
After that victory, Richt made the scheme an integral part of his playbook, relying on speed, spreading the field and the shotgun to overwhelm defenses. The prospect of that high-powered attack in the Classic City left Georgia fans and players alike eager to see how it would play out.
Upon Richt’s hiring, wide receiver Damien Gary told the Morris News Service that Florida State’s offensive prowess, and the chance to play in that type of system, had all the Bulldog playmakers “licking our chops.”
“He was coming off a national championship game, so we knew that he knew what success and championships looked like,” Greene said. “That’s the mentality that he was going to bring to Georgia. There’s no doubt that we bought into that, especially me being a young redshirt freshman. I was hanging on every word I was learning about the game of football.”
Given the success Ward had enjoyed leading the “fast break offense” — as well as Richt’s dogged pursuit of Shockley, who possessed a similar skill set — it was logical to assume that, despite his youth, the true freshman might have the inside track.
However, the same stability and same focus shown by Greene that had initially caught Donnan’s eye impressed Richt as well. The redshirt freshman picked up the system quickly, focused on living within his abilities and minimizing his mistakes.
Another thing working in Greene’s favor was everyone was essentially starting from scratch. An entirely new system meant new terminology and new quirks, and it established a level playing field for everyone.
“Obviously some guys had playing experience, but as far as understanding the offense we’re going to run, we’re all learning it at the same time,” Greene said. “That’s not the case when you’ve had a coach who has been there 10 to 15 years. You’re walking into situations where some kids know the offense like the back of their hand, and you’re the young kid just trying to understand the terminology.”
Greene earned the starting job, while Shockley was redshirted for his first year.
Rotations and rhythm
Greene guided the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record in his first season as a starter, including the famous “hobnail boot” last-second win against Tennessee and a strong performance to snap a three-game losing streak to rival Georgia Tech to close out the regular season. He threw for 2,789 yards and 17 touchdowns as the Bulldogs showed flashes of what Richt expected out of his offense.
Greene had established himself as the starter, winning SEC Freshman of the Year honors for his efforts.
Entering 2002, it also was apparent that Shockley’s inherent talent was going to drive a quarterback competition. This, however, wasn’t a signal that the two didn’t have a good personal relationship. Far from it. Both said it simply was a reflection of their desire to push themselves to be the best, and the pressure from each other forced them to stay focused.
“I always wanted to do a little bit more than him,” Shockley said. “I remember telling Greenie after we had both graduated that I always wanted to do two or three things more than he always did. If he was benching 275 pounds, I wanted to do 300. If he did 225 pounds 15 times, I wanted to do it 17 times.”
Greene and Shockley said Richt was transparent, open and honest about his plans to use both quarterbacks during their time at Georgia. It typically meant Greene would get the lion’s share of snaps with Shockley spelling him on a series of predetermined drives. How either player performed in a particular game would influence who would get time on the field.
“The one thing about Coach Richt is that as much pressure as it probably appeared from the outside on all of us, when it was just us in the quarterback room, it was light-hearted and fun,” Greene said. “We were just being kids. There was never tension involved with it which you’d probably think there could be.”
This isn’t to say rotating quarterbacks was easy for either player, particularly Shockley. He acknowledged feeling additional pressure to perform during his limited snaps each game, which led him to force throws or try to do too much.
The system also put pressure on Greene. There were times where the starter was in a rhythm to start the contest — see the 2002 Florida contest — but a quick trip to the bench might disrupt the flow of the game, which could take some time to get back.
“Mentally, I fought myself a lot with both angles — trying to do too much, but also coming back to the sideline and thinking that I should be on the field more,” Shockley said. “That’s the competitor in me, and I’m sure Greenie went through the same thing. He might have been in a rhythm in those first couple of series, got a few completions and then he’s out of the game and here I come. Keeping the right mindset could be really tough.”
Still, the rotation remained in effect with Greene firmly entrenched as the starter, and it delivered on the field. The Bulldogs would tally 10 victories in three straight seasons for the first time in 20 years, capture two SEC East titles and win an SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl with Greene at the helm and Shockley providing a change of pace.
This brings us back to that rainy, cold afternoon in Athens 16 years ago.
A cold, wet mess
Senior Day in Athens in 2004 was supposed to be a celebration of one of the most successful classes in program history, with Greene capping off a record-setting career in his final game at Sanford Stadium.
Late in the first quarter, though, after guiding Georgia downfield for an easy touchdown against rival Georgia Tech, Greene would depart with a cracked bone in the thumb on his left hand — his throwing hand.
Suddenly the future was now for Shockley.
It started fine enough for him. He threw a beautiful ball across the top of the defense to hit a streaking Leonard Pope for a long gain, and he followed it up with a deep pass to Sean Bailey to set up an easy, back-shoulder touchdown toss to Reggie Brown.
The Bulldogs would be up 16-0 at halftime and seemingly on their way before it all — almost — fell apart.
Here’s the thing — even though Shockley nobly wants to take on the blame for his poor performance, it’s important to realize the confluence of circumstances that all played a role in said performance.
For instance, the Bulldogs’ defense committed multiple unforced errors and penalties, several occurring on third down to extend drives for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia’s running game was non-existent, at one point in the fourth quarter only averaging a yard per carry in the contest, putting more pressure on Shockley to perform. To make matters worse, already missing Greene, the passing game was down another crucial weapon with Fred Gibson sidelined with a hip injury.
All of this put more pressure on Shockley, who — yes — struggled mightily. He started the second half 0-for-7 with the Bulldogs tallying four three-and-outs totalling negative-40 yards. With no running game, the Yellow Jackets blitzed relentlessly, forcing Shockley into a cacophony of poor decisions.
After Georgia’s defense earned a fourth-down stop deep in Bulldog territory, Greene returned with 7:11 left in the game and the team clinging to a 16-13 lead. He calmly and cooly managed the offense, completing an 8-yard pass to Brown on his first play back and then again connecting with Brown to convert a crucial third-and-9 for 13 yards.
Brandon Coutu drilled a field goal with a little more than two minutes left to pad Georgia’s lead, and the Bulldogs would hang on for a 19-13 win.
Greene earned a much-deserved heroic sendoff. Shockley, however, was forced to spend the rest of the offseason sifting through a fresh crop of doubts.
“I was so terrible when I got extended time to play, now everybody’s saying ‘Oh, I don’t know if this can do it’ or ‘Oh, I don’t know if he can handle being the starter,’” he said.
The gift of redemption
Of course, that’s not how this story ends.
Shockley took that disappointment and doubt, and he channelled it into determination and drive.
Georgia opened the 2005 season against Boise State, and the Broncos had positioned themselves as a fashionable upset pick by many prognosticators. It was understandable given the attrition the Bulldogs had endured in the offseason, but it just added fuel to Shockley’s fire.
And this motivation was not limited to the new starter as 2005 offered fresh opportunities for players like Quentin Moses, Bryan McClendon, Tony Taylor, Tra Battle and others.
“Coming into the Boise State game, there were a bunch of guys, similar to myself, who had been backups for the last two or three years and now we’re getting our opportunity to play,” Shockley said. “We wanted to prove to everyone that this wasn’t a rebuilding year because we had just lost (Thomas Davis), we had just lost (David) Pollack, and we had just lost Greenie.”
The game was never close, and Shockley overwhelmed the Broncos from the first snap. He finished the record-setting day with five touchdown passes and an additional score on the ground, tallying 374 total yards en route to a 48-13 victory.
With Shockley at the helm, the Bulldogs’ offense rarely slowed in 2005 as the team finished 10-2 and upset No. 3 LSU 34-14 to win the SEC Championship.
“To stand on the stage at the end and accept the MVP trophy and win the SEC Championship trophy in a year when no one expected us to be there was very satisfying for not just me, but a bunch of guys who were second and third-stringers the last two or three years,” Shockley said.
He finished the 2005 season completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,588 yards and 24 touchdowns, while also gaining 322 yards rushing with four scores. He won the FCA Bobby Bowden Football Player of the Year Award and finished third in the voting for the Associated Press Player of the Year Award.
His patience had paid off, with his lows enabling him to reach his highs.
“I think (the Georgia Tech game) was tremendous for him,” said Josh Kendall, then the beat writer for Georgia football at the Athens Banner-Herald. “I think any sort of playing time — even if it’s a negative experience, maybe especially if it’s a negative experience — gave him a baseline for what the reality of playing was instead of just practicing. It showed him what he needed to do to be ready to play.”
A relic of the past?
Let’s be clear on one thing — this story probably doesn’t happen today.
The landscape of college football has shifted, and student-athletes are taking greater ownership over their destinies and the ability of their college experiences to influence the outcome of their stories.
“You don’t see that happen anymore, especially in this day and age where I think a lot of kids come in and they feel like this should be their job,” Shockley said. “To be a guy who is No. 1 or No. 2 in the country coming out of high school, and then have to sit three years? I don’t think we’d see that happen anywhere now.”
It’s why Kelly Bryant left Clemson for Missouri and Jalen Hurts sought a graduate degree at Oklahoma rather than Alabama. The past two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 draft picks in the NFL, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow, both transferred away from programs with limited playing opportunities to places which afforded them the chance to get on the field.
Perhaps no school offers a more clear-cut example of this new era of quarterback free agency than Georgia, where two high-regarded quarterbacks — Jacob Eason and Justin Fields — both transferred after being unable to beat out Jake Fromm. And then, following Fromm’s departure, the Bulldogs restocked their quarterback room with transfers Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and J.T. Daniels from Southern Cal.
“Part of this is the bigger dynamic we’ve seen of a power shift from the school to more on the players,” Kendall said. “They can look out for themselves a little bit, and we’re seeing that across the spectrum of college athletics. I think it started with those elite quarterbacks who just said, ‘I’m not here for the name on the front of the jersey, I’m here for the name on the back, and if y’all don’t like it, I’m sorry, but this is my life.’”
More than 100 Division I quarterbacks had entered the transfer portal prior to the start of the 2019 season.
Like Kendall, Greene suggested much of it has to do with the changes to ways players view the experience. Transferring in the early 2000s simply wasn’t as much of an option as it is today, particularly since doing so back then often automatically meant having to sit out an entire season. The prospects of earning a waiver to land immediate playing eligibility were low.
As such, Greene and Shockley were reared in an environment that emphasized a team-first approach.
“We are kind of cut out of a more old-school cloth where we wanted to play football at Georgia, and we were more focused on how we can help the team win than what’s best for my individual career,” Greene said. “(Shockley) was an extremely unselfish player because he could have clearly helped any team win football games. He certainly contributed throughout his career at Georgia, and he was patient enough to wait until the very end just to get that opportunity his senior year and, boy, did he take advantage of it.”
Shockley entered Georgia as the consensus top dual-threat quarterback in the country, redshirted his first season and then waited until his senior season to take the starting job. And it wasn’t as if the thought of transferring didn’t ever cross his mind. While he acknowledged that his father had explored other opportunities, ultimately Shockley didn’t want to leave.
And that made Georgia better in the long run.
“Ultimately it comes down to that guy, and what kind of legacy you want to leave,” Shockley said. “For me, I felt as though I’m a Georgia kid, and I was going to get my Georgia education from there. Part of me was I knew I could play at the University of Georgia, and I wanted to prove that to people.
“I also wanted to show people that you can count on me. I’m a guy that was going to sign my letter of intent, and whether things were good or bad, you could depend on me. I think that respect I gained from my teammates and from people around the Dawg Nation, I think was appreciated after I left.”