It was another great week for the Georgia Bulldogs and head coach Kirby Smart. On the field, the Bulldogs easily dispatched of Vanderbilt on the road and are now in sole possession of first place in the SEC East as we reach the midpoint of the season.
Off the field, Smart and his staff reeled in arguably the biggest fish in the 2018 recruiting class when they received the verbal commitment of 5-star quarterback Justin Fields. Fields, from Harrison, Ga., originally committed to Penn State but backed out of that verbal last spring and selected the Bulldogs over Florida State, handing the Seminoles another disappointment in a disappointing season for them.
Now Georgia faces an interesting personnel issue going into the spring of 2018. Assuming Fields in an early entry, the program will have three highly-touted quarterbacks fighting for one football. As always in such situations, something will have to give and it’s more than likely that someone will have to go.
So let’s break this down:
Jake Fromm is the starter
Fromm, a true freshman, took over the job by injury, but right now he’s the best quarterback on the roster and week after week he’s earned the right to keep starting. Things can change, injuries can happen and the depth chart can be adjusted, but as of today Fromm is the man.
Not only is Fromm the man right now, he’s also earned the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned the right to throw a few bad passes, struggle in a game for a short period of time and have the opportunity to bounce back.
Fromm fits the identity of this Bulldogs team — he doesn’t try to make the big plays with his arm and he trusts the running game and defense. The team has rallied around him and believes it can win the SEC and compete for a national championship with Fromm under center.
This a lost season for Jacob Eason
Eason wasn’t great as a freshman but there were a lot of things to build on. An injury in the first game of his sophomore season stunted all of that potential growth. As long as Fromm stays healthy, the only opportunities for Eason will come in garbage time with the second team — and sometimes that can be a rough way to live.
While some of the fan base has already turned on Eason, most continue to support and encourage the young man. Smart continues to protect his psyche as best he can. But with limited snaps and an injury, Eason has shown nothing this season. In reality he may have been better off taking a medical redshirt while Georgia had a senior backup on the roster in Brice Ramsey, but he didn’t and now he has to wonder if he made the right move.
Fields isn’t going to wait his turn
Fields might red-shirt in 2018. If Eason and Fromm stay, that would be the likely scenario. But expect the nation’s top prospect to be ready to compete and put himself in position to get snaps next season.
The game has changed, and young quarterbacks come into college much more prepared than 10-20 years ago. There was a time when it was a process. Quarterbacks, highly-touted or not, came into a program, red-shirted, and spent a year or two as an active backup before inheriting the starting position.
These days, that model has blown up as true freshmen and redshirt freshmen are starting at top programs across the country. Now, if Fields red-shirts, it would be the best thing for this potential conundrum. It would put some distance between him and the two upperclassmen and make life easier for a team that wants competition but not controversy.
However, Fields didn’t commit to Georgia to red-shirt. He sees a starter in Fromm who doesn’t have his physical talent and a backup in Eason who doesn’t have confidence. He wants to play and play early.
Smart learned roster management from the best
One thing about working under Nick Saban, you learn to put the business of team above personal feelings. That’s why the Alabama coach has no issues with cleaning up his roster annually.
Go through any Alabama past recruiting class and you can separate them into two categories — “Stars” and “What happened to that guy, he was a 5-star prospect?”. Well, “that guy” was probably dropped or invited to pursue his football career elsewhere.
Smart saw his boss do it for many years, and whether he liked the kid personally or not, it ultimately came down to the question of “can you play for us?”. Blake Barnett and David Cornwell were 5-star prospects at quarterback who got limited opportunities before being shown the door because Saban had a better 5-star quarterback on the roster.
Eason NEEDS to play … somewhere
“Skinny” can’t sit for the next 2-3 years and expect to get drafted. Sure he’s big, sure he’s got a nice arm. But he isn’t the first big kid with a nice arm and won’t be the last, so he’ll need to show more.
The NBA is the place where potential gets drafted and coached into development. The NFL is where players get drafted who can help a team win quickly. Eason needs more starts, more snaps, more reps, more passes and more success on the field. As long as Fromm is healthy, he can’t get that from Georgia this year. And when Fields steps on campus, he’s going to have another player competing for the reps he needs to have.
If Eason were to transfer after the spring, he wouldn’t have too many roadblocks on his next selection. Georgia wouldn’t allow him to go to another SEC program, but the FBS teams on their out-of-conference schedule over the next few years are Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia. So if Eason wanted to go to, say, Miami and play under Mark Richt, he could. If he wanted to go back home and play for Chris Petersen at Washington or that nutty law pirate Mike Leach at Washington State, he could do that too.
He will have no shortage of potential suitors. But he needs at least another year (probably two) as a full-time starter, and he might not be able to get that in Athens.
All in all, having too many good players is never a bad thing, but understand that patience isn’t a virtue that’s as prevalent among today’s top prospects as it was in the last generation. These young men are competitors and prideful, talented athletes. For Eason sitting on the bench might be necessary this year but it’s not something he wants to get used to. For Fields, the opportunity to start and lead the school from his home state to a championship is a challenge he is ready to embrace.
And for Fromm, he knows he’s probably penciled in as the 2018 starter right now, BUT when he shows signs of struggling — and they all struggle at some point — he’ll find out that the most popular player on the team is always the backup quarterback.