Once upon a time, football players were able to relax during the summer. Maybe they'd hit the weights and keep
up their conditioning, but even that was optional until double sessions rolled around.
Now, for better or for worse, high school football is a
year-round activity. After the season comes the heavy lifting,
literally, along with the college visits, the spring practices and the exhibition games -- all of which are prime opportunities for college coaches to evaluate talent and decide where those
precious scholarship offers are going.
For top recruits like Plant (Fla.) senior quarterback Aaron Murray, the summer is a series of football camps, team-building exercises and 7-on-7
tournaments. It's a huge commitment, particularly for a signal-caller in the Panthers' system.
"They have to fully buy in to the work that they do -- not only them but their whole
families," Plant coach Robert Weiner says. "You have to hand them over to me for four years."
You'd be hard-pressed to argue with the results, however. Murray, a Georgia commit, is rated the nation's No. 3 recruit in the ESPNU 150. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder led Plant to an 11-2 record and the Class 4A regional finals last
season, throwing a remarkable 51 touchdown passes (against only seven interceptions) to set a new single-season state record.
This season, Murray and Weiner have their sights set even higher.
"We don't really talk in small goals," Weiner says. "Aaron knows, in the end, his worth as a quarterback solely rests with his ability to lead his team to a state championship."
No pressure or anything.
Murray has quite a challenge ahead of him. The Panthers return only three starters on each side of the ball after graduating a ton of talent, including the bulk of the receiving corps.
That unit was the key to Plant's 15-0 state championship campaign in 2006, a season in which Panthers QB Robert Marve, now at Miami, broke Heisman winner Tim Tebow's state passing TD record -- the one Murray would surpass the very next season.
On the sideline for most of 2006 after tearing his labrum, Murray saw up close what it takes to win a title. The injury occurred in the fourth game of the season, at a point when Murray led the team in tackles from the strong safety position. Suffering in silence, Murray took some snaps under center late in that game and it was clear something was wrong.
But getting hurt may have been a blessing in disguise. It allowed Murray to learn the intricacies of the offense by watching Marve's every step.
"I never really knew that footwork was that big of a deal until I saw Robert," Murray says. "I learned his moves, tried to use what he did to convert it to my own style."
On the surface, Marve and Murray are cut from the same cloth, strong passers with the
ability to scramble when the pocket collapses. But there are subtle differences.
"Aaron is a little more prone to hang in the pocket a little longer and take the hit," Weiner says.
He's also more likely to go for the home run rather than the sure thing. For the most part, that worked wonders last season, though Murray deflects praise of his record-setting campaign.
"I was extremely blessed to have all this talent around me," he says. "It was easy, if I was in trouble, to just throw them a quick slant or a quick hitch."
What that ignores is his imagination and ability to make full-field reads. Coaches marveled at those skills over the summer at both a University of Florida clinic and the EA Sports Elite 11 quarterback camp in Southern California, where Murray outperformed some of the nation's top signal-callers to earn the MVP award.
"He's got a certain knack for that that you don't see really in high school players anywhere," Weiner says. "You get that from hours and hours and hours of pouring over film, watching others play,
watching yourself play.
"Aaron has eight things to do when he comes to the line of scrimmage," Weiner continues. "And he does them all in about three seconds."
Despite the eye-popping numbers -- Murray threw for 4,012 yards, rushed for 923 yards and added 12 rushing TDs to go with his 51 air strikes -- last season was hardly a cakewalk. Murray had to step out of Marve's shadow and establish his own identity.
The biggest struggles came against Armwood, the perennial powerhouse that dealt Plant both its losses last season. Stocked with one of the best defensive units in the nation, the Hawks
stifled Murray and the Panthers, limiting them to one touchdown in each contest.
Two of the premier programs in 4A, Plant and Armwood have a blossoming rivalry that should reach fever pitch this season. Armwood won state titles in 2003 and 2004 before falling in the championship game to Tebow's Nease squad in 2005. In 2006, Plant vanquished the Hawks in the regional final on its way to the state crown, and Armwood returned the favor last year before falling in the state semis.
And wouldn't you know it, Plant's season-opening game this fall is against none other than the Hawks.
"You want to play against the best because you want to prove yourself," says Murray, who plans to graduate early so he can enroll at Georgia for the spring semester. "We're all looking forward to that game. We have a countdown in our locker room."
Though the ramifications weren't equal to the state playoffs, Murray got a taste of what it's like to lead a team to a title this summer. At the Nike 7ON tournament in Beaverton, Ore., Murray led the Panthers to six wins in two days, copping MVP honors to go along with the championship. But Murray knows he has his work cut out for him if he wants to duplicate that success on the most important stage.
"The biggest challenge is becoming the leader of a team," he says. "You have to work harder than everybody else. You can't take a day off."
And definitely not a summer.
Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.