Friendship factors into Charles' NFL decision

The choice facing Georgia junior tight end Orson Charles is not a simple accounting exercise.

Were it only so, he’d already have one foot in the NFL draft. He’d declare Monday’s Outback Bowl in his hometown of Tampa a fitting farewell to his football internship, take his bow, then start the clock on his earning potential before one wrong hit made it go pffft.

Assumptions already have been made. A draft analyst for has tweeted that the All-SEC tight end is as good as gone. It took Charles far fewer than 140 characters to answer that earlier this month: “Don’t believe that.”

This is where feelings begin to fog the lens.

The trip back to Tampa to play a bowl game is a reminder of the investment Charles has with his quarterback at Georgia, Aaron Murray. Theirs is a friendship, a shared sense of purpose, that dates to before they arrived in Athens. Whether to preserve that relationship at Georgia is something Charles certainly will weigh before making his big decision.

You perhaps have heard that he and Murray were teammates for a season back at Tampa Plant High School. That is mentioned only about 18 times per Bulldogs broadcast, and it is sure to be a dominant theme of the Outback Bowl game versus Michigan State.

The return of the Tampa twosome has been a joyful thing, a proud homecoming.

“If we weren’t going to New Orleans [and the BCS Championship Game], then coming to Tampa was the second best thing,” said Murray’s mother, Lauren.

The Murrays are playing unofficial bowl hosts during the Bulldogs swing through Tampa, organizing a New Year’s night dinner and dance as well as a game-day tailgate reception for the players’ families. Charles mother, Naseline, invited people to come along to a New Year’s Eve service at her church and promised a serving of her spicy jerk chicken to anyone daring enough to come by and try it. The dish is a remnant of her upbringing on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

“I’m not a big spicy kind of guy. I’m going to have to try it at some point, because Orson just talks too much about it,” Murray said.

Good friends

There are definite differences in taste buds and in backgrounds between Charles and Murray. Still, the many similarities in their approach to life and football have come to define the quarterback and his favorite target this season (44 catches, 572 yards, five touchdowns).

“I think they truly love each other as friends,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

“In every sense of the word, they’re brothers,” Lauren Murray said. “That’s something [Plant coach Robert Weiner] instilled in all the players. He’s very big into love your brother, protect your brother, be there for your brother. That’s something that was very natural for Aaron and Orson.”

Might Charles want one more year at Georgia to play this thing out as far as possible with his buddy?

Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare themselves available for the draft. Murray, a redshirt junior-to-be, already has indicated he’ll be return to Georgia. Before to the Outback Bowl, Charles wasn’t saying.

Charles is rated potentially the sixth best pass-catcher in the draft by analyst Bucky Brooks and the second best tight end, sandwiched between Clemson’s Dwayne Allen and Stanford’s Coby Fleener.

Doing little to protect his own interests, Richt offers a scouting report casting Charles as draft-ready: “He’s not like a big giant guy when it comes to blocking [at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds], but he blocks bigger than he is. Because he’s not this big lumberjack, he’s a sleek receiver. This guy is a legitimate third receiver and a legitimate blocker.”

As he chews over the big decision, Charles said his closeness to Murray will be just one of many morsels. Much as when the two were being recruited — Murray committed first to Georgia — Charles said his buddy has not attempted to sway him one way or the other, defaulting to the position of advising Charles to do what’s best for Charles.

High school move

Theirs is a friendship initiated by the tight end when he was playing at another high school, Riverview. At 7-on-7 offseason tournaments, Charles kept running into the roadblock of Murray-led teams. As a sophomore, he decided Murray was the quarterback he wanted to play with.

Having promised his coach at Riverview he would stay through his junior season, Charles spent a good part of that year arranging his transfer to Plant. He reached out to Weiner and called Murray to inform him that he was on his way.

“Which one are you again?” Murray wondered. The Riverview team had a couple talented pass-catchers.

“The one with the calves,” Charles told him. Charles always was ahead of the curve physically.

Charles convinced his mother to pick up and move with him and his younger brother to the Plant school district, even if that meant a longer commute to her job as an administrative assistant at a Brandon hospital (about 15 miles from Tampa).

His quest to play with Murray set off “a cascade of change,” Naseline Charles said. Her son’s stats skyrocketed, as he went from 12 catches, 400 yards as a junior at Riverview to 75 catches, 1,440 yards at Plant. And, in addition to an extended church family that provided her boys with much of their male mentoring, Naseline discovered another set of close friends at Plant. Lasting friends. Just last week, Lauren Murray picked up Charles’ younger brother from school after Naseline was delayed at work.

The one year Charles and Murray played together at Plant (2008) was interrupted that October when the quarterback shattered his ankle.

Murray’s mother still chokes up when recalling the scene in the locker room at halftime of that game.

Her injured son was collecting himself in the weight room as players filed past on their way to the field for the second half. Charles stopped for a moment, took his friend’s hand and said he would play just as hard as Murray rehabbed, and they would both make it to the state championship. Charles even wore Murray’s number the next game.

“Orson played better than he ever played, and Aaron worked hard. They had made a commitment to each other,” Murray’s mother said. With Murray returning late in the playoffs, Plant won the state title.

The two discovered the common ground of being uncompromising competitors.

Playing smart

To this day, Charles is the type of player who can remember his drops more readily than his catches. “Oh, yeah,” he said, beginning to list his most egregious lapses this season. “Boise State toward the end. Ole Miss. LSU toward the end. That can’t happen. Just lack of concentration more than anything else.”

Murray’s mother remembers being shocked the first time she noted her son yelling up at his bigger friend, in the way a quarterback will when his receiver runs the wrong route.

Charles expects nothing less.

“You just click better when teammates work just as hard as you, when they have the same goals and aspirations as you have,” he said. “In my circle, everyone loves to work hard. They love football. They want to be smarter and be the best at what they do.

“Aaron and I just work. He cusses me out, he pushes me, but I embrace that. He wants me to be the best I can be. How can I not be his friend?”

Charles and Murray have been in lockstep for four years, winning a high school state championship, escaping the gravitational pull of the Florida Gators to leave their home state for Georgia, coming north, said Richt, with “a mission to try to win some championships.”

At some point, their common path must diverge again. Charles has two weeks to survey and determine whether that time is now, or a year from now after he and his chum have taken one more shot at a mission not quite accomplished.

Comparing Georgia’s tight ends

Georgia’s tradition of tight ends includes the likes of Randy McMichael, Clarence Kay, Ben Watson, Leonard Pope and Shannon Mitchell. Charles holds his own against them all.

-- He leads Georgia tight ends in career yardage, 1,368.

-- He is tied for the all-time lead in touchdowns, 10 (with Pope).

-- He is tied for third in receptions, 93 (Mitchell leads at 104).

Outback Bowl

Who: Georgia vs. Michigan State

When: 1 p.m. Monday

Where: Tampa

TV; radio: ABC; 750, 95.5