- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- If you're a Georgia fan who had much confidence when Marshall Morgan took the field last season to attempt a field goal -- or heck, even an extra point -- consider yourself among the rare few.
Like many freshman kickers, Morgan's first season was rocky to say the least. Those who are any good, however, generally take a big step in Year 2, and Morgan is certainly doing that.
This week he was named as one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award -- which goes to the nation's top kicker -- and won the SEC's Special Teams Player of the Week award for the third time in the six games since he returned from a two-game suspension to open the season.
“He's had some bombs and I don't even think about it now,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “His 50-yarder he had the other day [a 49-yard kick against Florida], I wasn't even concerned at all. I was like, 'All right, it's going in.' I wasn't even watching. I turned around and he made it and I was like, 'Hey, attaboy' and gave him a little high five and that was it. No worries at all.”
Compare that attitude to last season, when Morgan started the season in a funk on PATs and ended it by hitting just two of his last five field-goal tries, and the difference is striking. Morgan admits that he sensed his teammates' trepidation when he would take the field, which makes his success this season even more gratifying.
“[They made] just little remarks that aren't meant to hurt you, but it sticks on, you know? So now it's kind of like you look back and put it in their face,” Morgan laughed.
The sophomore has had plenty of reasons to smile this season. He leads the nation in made field goals per game (2.2) and ranks 12th (first in the SEC) with an average of 10.2 points per game. He's a perfect 22-for-22 on extra points and his only two misses out of the 15 field goals he has attempted came from 52 (North Texas) and 39 (Tennessee) yards, while his long of 56 yards set a new record at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
“I feel like I'm starting to earn my scholarship a little bit,” Morgan said. “Before I felt kind of like, I don't know, like last year, it was like average kicking. And this year, I feel like I'm actually working towards a goal and actually achieving a goal slowly but surely.”
Asked about the difference in their kicker from last season to this fall, several Bulldogs mentioned his improved maturity -- an area that Morgan mentioned too.
“He was a little bit of an airhead when he first got here. He still is, but he's more mature,” receiver Michael Bennett cracked.
Morgan is also more confident on the field after an offseason of hard work and a transitional first year in college where he – like all kickers – had to adjust to playing in front of bigger crowds and kicking off the ground instead of off a tee.
That, Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said, is the biggest factor as a sophomore kicker makes significant improvement from his first college season.
“The first time you do it, you go from kicking in a high school stadium with 500 people or maybe 5,000 people,” Richt said. “You're kicking off a tee and the rush isn't the same, and then you go into these stadiums where there's 80, 90 or 100,000 people inside and there are people watching on TV. Every single game, you know that every kick you make is probably going to make a difference in winning or losing, or even every extra point.
“That's kind of hard to adjust to when you're not used to that, and it's probably a little bit of a shock to them.”
It has certainly been the trend at Georgia. In 2008, Blair Walsh hit just 65 percent of his field goals as a freshman before posting two of the most consistent seasons in school history as a sophomore (90.9 percent) and junior (86.96). Now Morgan is in position to post one of the best percentages in school history if he keeps kicking at the same clip down the stretch.
“I dreamed of it,” Morgan said when asked if he expected to enjoy this kind of success. “Of course I believed in myself, but now that it's actually happening, it's a lot better feeling.”
Competition also helped him raise his game this season, Morgan said. After a mediocre first season, and then an offseason arrest for boating under the influence that forced him to miss the first two games, Morgan knew he wasn't guaranteed a job when he returned to the active roster.
Patrick Beless went 2-for-2 on field goals and 10-for-10 on PATs, so Morgan had to produce once he came back for the North Texas game -- and he has.
“Patty did a great job. He didn't miss,” Morgan said. “So just in the back of my mind I was like, 'I could lose my job, so I've really got to take it serious.' I just hunkered down and just really no jokes on the field. I just really did my kicking and that's what I still do now and it's working.”