Jacob Eason vs. The Burden of Expectation
Jacob Eason, the 5-star wunderkind from Washington state who oozes talent, who has one year of collegiate hard knocks under his belt, who is complemented with talented and experienced weapons returning this fall, carries a burden of expectation rarely seen, even in demanding SEC circles.
“It isn’t 2016 anymore,” scream the legions of championship-starved Georgia loyalists who will inhabit Sanford Stadium and surrounding living rooms and sports bars in the Peach State, expecting greatness from the sophomore and the seemingly loaded team that will surround him.
They will expect Eason, solid if not spectacular in handling his first helping of pressure as a freshman, to rocket upward on that career-defining arc that takes him from OK to extraordinary. The arc that changes the way his own fans and, more importantly, opposing fans and defensive coordinators view him.
Right now, Eason is still a question mark, teetering between what Georgia prays he will become and what it fears he might only be.
He’s still a curiosity. So equipped with talent and so ready to take the reins and lead the Bulldogs to the SEC East title that many predict they will finally capture again after five years. But also still so unproven because he got eaten alive at Ole Miss, because he was the latest Georgia quarterback to not beat Florida, because he came up short against hated rival Georgia Tech and because he lost to Vanderbilt, at home, with his team only managing 16 points.
It was another season in the seemingly endless Georgia spin cycle of talent not equaling the proper amount of wins when you compute the final record. The Bulldogs went 8-5 in 2016 and were 4-4 in the SEC, and lord knows Eason wasn’t recruited to go 8-5 and 4-4 and beat TCU by a measly touchdown in the Liberty Bowl.
He was lured across the country by Kirby Smart and his offensive assistants to play in and win bowl games in the month of January, and because he lost five games as a learn-on-the-job freshman in a high-profile program that has long teased its fans with talented teams that have come up short in the biggest moments, Eason will be expected to ease many years of pain in 2017.
To wonder if all this is fair to Eason, as well as his team and Smart, is to question the frustration of Georgia fans who’ve had to watch Florida go to SEC championship games as if it was a December ritual while they stewed and settled for the Outback Bowl. Or the aging alumni spoiled by that sudden thrust of title glory in 1980 who have had to cringe as Alabama put more and more national championships on its tote board.
Smart was part of this still-ticking Alabama dynasty, and he took his own first-year lumps as his quarterback did, and he has his own boxes to check off this fall as he tries to prove he can be a championship coach as the head man. In so many ways his burden of expectation is tied to Eason’s, but Smart will most likely be in Athens for many years.
What he doesn’t lug around is another layer that Eason carries into this fall: the burden of time. Even if he does turn out to be a four-year college quarterback, that means there’s three more chances to get it right, which sounds like a lot but really isn’t.
And if he’s destined to be just a stat machine who can’t lead in the biggest of moments and can’t win that coveted national crown between the hedges and he only stays for three years, then that takes him down to two more falls to be remembered as more than just that 5-star kid who couldn’t ease Athens’ pain.
Either way, the sands in Eason’s fictional, red-colored hourglass are moving, even right now through the summer as he stares into a season that will challenge him 100 times more than last year’s crash course. He’ll have had a full offseason to work with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and he’ll step into that fierce humidity of fall camp knowing where to go and what to say and what not to say.
In other words, he’ll have all those intangible advantages he didn’t enjoy last year, when he still managed to throw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. It wasn’t bad. But there was the 55 percent completion percentage that must rise above 60, where the 5-star guys normally reside.
Eason also took 21 sacks, a bit too many to be an SEC East champion, and surely that number must decrease as his awareness in the pocket grows and as Sam Pittman continues to build the offensive line in front of him.
This fall, Eason’s most memorable moment can’t be against Missouri, with all due respect to the Tigers. Last year, in his first SEC game, on the road, Eason tossed the winning touchdown on fourth down in the final minutes to rescue the Bulldogs from defeat in Columbia. It put a phony, storybook ending to what was really a warning sign that Georgia wasn’t ready, still, in 2016, and that Eason, who was an inefficient 29 of 55 that night, was still in the early learning stages of a rigid four-month freshman course.
As it turned out, that misleading victory only saved Georgia from going 3-5 in the SEC instead of being the launching pad to Eason leading the Bulldogs to something special in 2016. It wasn’t fool’s gold because Eason can still be something very special as a Georgia quarterback and football figure, but it wasn’t what almost every rabid Dawgs fan thought it was on that mid-September night.
To be fair to Eason, we must zoom back again, to the first afternoon of October, with the SEC national TV spotlight on the freshman and a frenzied-red crowd at Sanford Stadium. Eason’s numbers weren’t anything special that day against then-unbeaten Tennessee. He was 17 of 28 for 211 yards. But his 47-yard touchdown fling to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds left was absolutely heroic, giving the Bulldogs an improbable 31-28 lead in what looked to be the first Memorable Eason Moment of a storied career.
Of course, that all-time moment dissolved into horror as the senior one-upped the freshman when Joshua Dobbs’ 43-yard Hail Mary was caught at the final gun. The day belonged to Tennessee instead, though Eason did show he could command a pressure-packed moment and throw a winning dart of a touchdown pass when all seemed lost. The freshman who wasn’t always “on” in 2016 planted the first seed that he just might have that special it quality in his arm, mind and heart.
Even if the Tennessee nightmare was just another example of Georgia falling short in the biggest moments, and it was, by the end of this fall, after a few more of those all-time Eason Moments, Bulldogs fans might just look back on that afternoon as the first time they saw greatness out of the kid from Pac-12 country who came 3,000 miles to prove he could win in the SEC.
The stars have seemingly aligned for Eason to make magic this year because Georgia’s old stars are back. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb decided to put the NFL on hold for a year, and they certainly didn’t put their draft stock and personal health at risk to come back to Athens and go 8-5 or 9-4 or even 10-3. Yes, Eason’s top target from a year ago, Isaiah McKenzie, is on the Denver Broncos now. But second-leading receiver Terry Godwin is back, and so are Javon Wims and Ridley.
That offensive line has had another year under Pittman’s guidance and got a healthy infusion of talent on National Signing Day. The defense is supposed to be loaded and ready to be among the SEC’s elite. Smart and his coaching staff won’t be in their first go-around like last fall, when they learned together on the sideline while Eason learned, sometimes the hard way, on the field.
And, once again, the SEC East won’t have a dominant team that Georgia can’t handle if it performs up to its capabilities for once.
Add up all that encouraging karma and there are no excuses for Eason, not a single fallback to explain away another Bulldogs season gone awry. The pressure is squarely on Georgia and more specifically on the gem of the 2016 recruiting class, who couldn’t even be in comfort mode this spring as eager freshman quarterback Jake Fromm caught the eye of Smart, who went so far as to claim the quarterback job was open.
It made Eason watch a whole lot more film than he had before, to gain some of Smart’s attention back, and it was just the kick in the backside Eason needed as he tries to transition from 5-star “could be” to sophomore star.
That’s all championship-starved Georgia fans want, after all. They just want a return on the success Eason’s arrival seemingly promised. They want Eason to be as great as they imagined on that delirious day he confirmed he was coming to Athens.
They want Eason to be the leader of an SEC East champion, an SEC champion, a national champion. They’ve waited 37 years, since Herschel and Co. They want Eason to help Georgia finally be the one on the right side of those Saturday celebrations and not always the one crying at the end.
They want that career-defining arc to surge upward for Eason in 2017, so high that it never really stops. They want out of that dreaded spin cycle, finally, and believe Eason can be the one, with all those happy intangibles around him, to lead them out.
That’s Eason’s burden in 2017.