Where does Georgia's 2020 quarterback saga go from here?
According to his father, Stetson Bennett turned down 20 offers to walk on at Georgia in 2017.
The alumnus of Pierce County High School in Blackshear — located near the state’s southeast corner — doesn’t elaborate much. But you could almost see the flames in Bennett’s pupils when asked how it felt to rally his team to a 37-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday.
The feat came 2 years after Bennett transferred to Jones County Junior College in Mississippi on account of his lower place on the Bulldogs’ depth chart.
“It was nice,” Bennett said, a half-smile, half-defiant-sneer tugging at the corners of his mouth, “better than not doing that.”
Not coming in and completing 20-of-29 passes for 211 yards and a pair of scores might have spelled absolute disaster for a Bulldogs team with SEC and national title aspirations. Saturday morning, Bennett was once again the forgotten horse in Georgia’s ongoing quarterback race.
By early evening, he’d added the latest wrinkle to this saga.
“I’m proud and happy for Stetson,” Dawgs coach Kirby Smart said. “He gave us the juice we needed.
“We’ll decide this week how we’re going to go forward.”
The narrative in many circles will be that freshman D’Wan Mathis came into his first career start Saturday overhyped, then proceeded to underperform. The ultra-athletic Oak Park, Michigan, native oversaw the better part of a nightmarish first half that had Georgia trailing possibly the worst team on its all-conference schedule 7-5 at halftime.
His inexperience was evident at times. But Mathis’ 8-for-17, 55-yard, 1-interception performance don’t tell the entire story. The Bulldogs finished the day with 12 penalties for 108 yards and gave up 3 sacks; the offensive line was especially sluggish in the first half and rarely gave Mathis much opportunity to find a rhythm.
“I thought we were very stagnant,” Smart said. “Not all of those things that went wrong were D’Wan’s fault. I know a lot of people will blame D’Wan — fans, media, whatever — but at the end of the day, it’s on all of us to get it right.”
Bennett, meanwhile, benefited from a defensive boost that included 3 interceptions and outstanding special teams play, including a blocked punt that set up a 24-yard scoring drive.
One would have to wonder where Mathis’ confidence is after getting benched early in the second quarter and not returning till the fourth with the game already secure. Especially with the possibility of JT Daniels finally being cleared to play ahead of a Week 2 matchup with Auburn.
It was unclear up till shortly before kickoff whether Daniels would be able to go after a torn ACL and meniscus sidelined him for the better part of last season at USC. This was supposed to be a 2-man bout after Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
“He can factor in as soon as he gets cleared,” Smart said of Daniels.
Those Twitter and message board conversations about Newman as a dark-horse Heisman candidate seem like a long time ago, don’t they?
There are quarterback battles, then there’s what’s transpiring in Athens. Daniels’ rebound from an up-and-down stint in Los Angeles. Mathis’ rise after surgery to remove a cyst from his brain last year.
It was almost easy to forget about Bennett. Till Saturday.
But his place in the drama came full circle. The 5-11, 190-pound junior went the JUCO route in 2018 after UGA brought in Justin Fields. The 5-star recruit, now a Heisman hopeful at Ohio State, was almost immediately placed ahead of Bennett in the pecking order.
“When I left,” Bennett said, “I didn’t think I’d ever come back.”
But after ranking 12th in the NJCAA in passing yards in 2018, he gave Smart another shot. Smart did the same, this time putting Bennett on scholarship.
Smart likely hit the pillow Saturday night thanking the Good Lord he decided to do that.
“The No. 1 thing is experience,” Smart said. “Experience at that position is a premium. I think you see that more and more across the SEC when you look at the quarterbacks that are here and the quarterbacks that aren’t here. Stetson has played in a lot of football games.”
So what will we see moving forward? Who knows.
In a shortened season, there’s something to be said for establishing who “the guy” is and creating continuity throughout an offense. At the same time, COVID-19 has already sidelined entire position groups around the country, so what could be labeled as a quarterback “controversy” might be a good problem to have this season.
The fact that Bennett came in and performed despite yielding the lion’s share of reps during fall camp to Daniels and Mathis would suggest Georgia has at worst an ultra-reliable backup heading into a primetime, College GameDay edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
This has all the makings of a situation that will evolve on a weekly basis. Then again, Daniels could get cleared, come in against Auburn and prove why he was once viewed as Newman’s top competitor for the starting role.