QB Curve: Jake Fromm won Georgia's trust. Can he win on the biggest stage?
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different SEC signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective. Previously: Jalen Hurts (Preseason) • Drew Lock • Nick Fitzgerald • Kyle Shurmur • Jake Bentley • Danny Etling • Shea Patterson • Stephen Johnson • Feleipe Franks • Jarrett Stidham • Jalen Hurts (Part 2)
QB of the Week: Jake Fromm
Typecasting: The Opportunist. There’s an alternate timeline of the 2017 season in which Jacob Eason doesn’t leave Georgia’s season opener with a knee injury, remains the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback the rest of the year, and relegates Jake Fromm to mop-up duty. That was the original plan, and whether it would have ended with UGA playing for what amounts to an automatic playoff bid on the final Saturday of the season is a question for the ages. (Or at least for talk radio.) But it’s safe to say at this point that no one — perhaps even Eason himself, weeks after conceding the top line on the depth chart — can argue with the results.
From the start, Fromm has looked comfortable and capable in the spotlight: His first career start was a 20-19 upset at Notre Dame in Week 2, followed by seven consecutive wins (six vs. SEC opponents) by an average of 30 points per game. That margin has held the past two weeks, when the Bulldogs rebounded from their deflating loss at Auburn on Nov. 11 to beat Kentucky and Georgia Tech by 29 and 31 points, respectively. Fromm ended the regular season as the SEC leader in yards per attempt and overall pass efficiency vs. FBS opponents, and ranked second in touchdown percentage. Based strictly on the numbers, Fromm belongs on the short list of most productive true freshman quarterbacks in modern history, and still has a chance to surpass Jalen Hurts’ 2016 debut as unquestionably the best.
Still, as close as Alabama came to pulling it off last year, only one true freshman quarterback has ever won a national championship by taking a majority of the snaps. And as much as playing quarterback has changed since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway did it in 1985 — by completing 24 passes all season – that may as well have happened 100 years ago as 32. Between Holieway and Hurts, no other quarterback in his first year on campus even came close.
To break that streak, Fromm must deliver where Hurts ultimately could not, in the postseason, beginning with this weekend’s rematch against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. The first meeting was awful for Georgia in all phases, and the only time Fromm has been made to look like an ordinary freshman in over his head in a hostile environment. Not coincidentally, it was also the only time he was forced to operate without a reliable, frequently dominant ground game occupying most of the defense’s attention.
It’s the same dynamic that hounded Hurts at this time last year: As a complement to the talent around him, Fromm has been an indispensable cog in the machine; as the focal point, he has almost no experience.
There’s no debate anymore over whether Fromm is entrenched, or whether he should be. But as the stakes continue to rise, so does the bar. If winning a championship requires him to do more than he’s done in the Bulldogs’ wins to date, has he come far enough over the course of a dozen games to clear it?
The Good. A few years from now Fromm’s height and overall athleticism might be regarded as liabilities at the next level, just as they were for his most obvious analog at Georgia, Aaron Murray. At this level, though, Fromm looks like a natural. Even if he doesn’t have Eason’s NFL-ready arm strength, the Bulldogs’ run-first philosophy creates a lot of opportunities for big plays off play-action — Mississippi State still has burn marks from its trip to Athens in September — and Fromm has been consistently good at hitting them.
Besides leading the league in yards per attempt, From has also completed a higher percentage of his passes for first downs (38.5 percent) and for gains of 15 yards or longer (25.5 percent) than any other SEC starter; only Missouri’s Drew Lock has completed a higher percentage for touchdowns. Altogether Georgia’s offense leads the conference in Passing S&P+.
Some of that has to do with his wideouts, especially Terry Godwin Jr. and Javon Wims, who have helped their young QB by hauling in contested and outright spectacular catches on a near-weekly basis; between them Godwin and Wims average 18.2 yards per catch, and at times their catch radius seems almost impossible. Like Murray, Fromm’s strength is his accuracy, and it helps to have a couple of guys on the outside who sometimes expand the definition of what qualifies as “accurate.” But Fromm helps them, too, by dropping throws into windows that only his intended targets have any chance to reach:
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 4, 2017
In keeping with that theme, a good percentage of Fromm’s success has come on back-shoulder and sideline throws, and he has been especially good on what’s usually one of my least favorite plays, the end zone fade, which has been more productive in his hands than it has any right to be. Fromm’s 19 touchdown passes this year include successful fade routes against Notre Dame (you might remember that one), Florida, and South Carolina, all to different receivers.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 4, 2017
And while coaches have clearly tried to limit the amount they put on Fromm’s plate as far as reading defenses from the pocket, given enough time to scan the field he has shown some aptitude. On Georgia’s opening drive against Auburn, he followed a 28-yard gain to Wims on a back-shoulder route (in the face of a third-down blitz, no less) with a 26-yard gain to Godwin on the next play, demonstrating patience and recognition from the pocket and setting up a short TD run less than four minutes into the game:
— Dayne Young (@dayneyoung) November 11, 2017
Though he’s rarely asked to run by design, Fromm is probably more dangerous with the ball in his hands than he’s generally given credit for: Ten of his 31 carries (not including sacks) have resulted in first downs, and eight have gained at least 10 yards, including a 21-yard scramble against Kentucky on a QB draw. He’s not Jalen Hurts in that respect, by any means; he’s not Jacob Eason, either.
The Not-So-Good. Fromm is not immune to some of your standard-issue dumb freshman stuff, most notably when throwing over the middle: Three of his five interceptions on the year (against Notre Dame, Missouri, and Kentucky) have come as the result of Fromm staring down a receiver on third down and either failing to see or simply disregarding a linebacker in the throwing lane.
— Dayne Young (@dayneyoung) October 16, 2017
By far, though, the biggest issue surrounding Fromm as the degree of difficulty ramps up is the enormous degree to which he has been sheltered in Georgia’s offense. The Bulldogs are a legitimately dominant rushing offense, the best in the SEC in yards per game, and run almost three times as often as they throw. Of the top 70 quarterbacks nationally in pass efficiency, only one average fewer passes per game (17.3) than Fromm. In seven of his 11 starts he has attempted 16 passes or fewer, completing just nine against Mississippi State, seven against Tennessee, seven against Vanderbilt, four against Florida and nine against Kentucky.
Compared to the SEC’s other full-time starters behind center, Fromm has accounted for a significantly smaller share of his team’s overall production than any of them:
Total Yards by Full-time SEC Starters as Percent of Team’s Total Offense
1. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt – 66.6%
2. Jake Bentley, South Carolina – 66.0%
3. Drew Lock, Missouri – 62.9%
4. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky – 56.5%
5. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State – 55.5%
6. Jalen Hurts, Alabama – 49.4%
7. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn – 47.7%
8. Danny Etling, LSU – 47.1%
9. Jake Fromm, Georgia – 40.3%
That says more about how Georgia’s offense is built and its success than it does about Fromm; the Bulldogs have spent a lot of time throttling down with big second-half leads, and if anyone else on that list shared a backfield with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift they’d defer to them most of the time, too.
But it does become a significant concern for Georgia when its running game is less productive than usual and Fromm has to pick up the slack with his arm. That’s exactly what happened Nov. 11 against Auburn — Georgia’s top three backs finished with 66 yards on 2.8 per carry, with a long gain of just 10 yards — and the result was the worst-case scenario: Without the running game to fall back on, Fromm looked lost. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns, on their first and last possessions, and in between fell into a deep funk their freshman quarterback had no chance of throwing them out of.
The only good thing to say about that is that Fromm didn’t commit an egregious turnover that accelerated the carnage. (He fumbled as the result of a monster blindside hit in the third quarter, but that wasn’t his fault and Georgia recovered the loose ball.) But even the few positives in that stretch — specifically, the two throws that resulted in first downs, both downfield heaves to Wims — were isolated plays and didn’t amount to or suggest anything sustainable.
That was all-purpose collapse, beginning with the offensive line, which might have been more overmatched than its quarterback. Once he became the focal point, though, Fromm’s much celebrated poise gradually fell apart under sustained pressure. Until proven otherwise, that’s the question mark looming over UGA’s prospects this weekend in Atlanta and whatever comes next.
The Takeaway. Of course, as far as Georgia is concerned the ideal scenario for Saturday features as little Fromm as possible, except as an onlooker to a typically punishing performance by the ground game. I’ll have a full Auburn-UGA preview up later this week, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to suggest that everything the Bulldogs want to do begins and ends with their capacity for establishing the run. It’s who they are.
Realistically, though, no matter how well things go in the trenches, at some point every team with legitimate championship ambitions needs its quarterback to come through with a clutch play or drive with his back against the wall. If Saturday’s rematch unfolds anything like Round 1 then Fromm will have to make a lot of those type of plays to give UGA any chance at a better outcome. If he does, then he’ll never have to buy a drink in the state of Georgia again – the Bulldogs will advance to the Playoff with their first SEC title in more than a decade and as good a chance as anyone left of claiming their first national crown since 1980. If not, then the offseason will belong to the what-ifs.
QB CURVE POWER HOUR!
Ranking the league’s starting quarterbacks at the end of the regular season. (Last week’s rankings reflect most recent edition of QB Curve on Nov. 15.)
1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. Stidham hasn’t had a single defining performance — he didn’t have a passing touchdown in Auburn’s win over Alabama, and his only 300-yard performance of the season came in a Week 3 win over Mercer — but week by week he steadily has emerged as exactly the guy the Tigers hoped he would be: In SEC games he has 12 touchdown passes and a single pick. He’s never going to put up the kind of numbers to join the conversation with a Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson, but even with those two at the top Stidham belongs on the list of the best quarterbacks in the country. (Last week: 2)
2. Jalen Hurts, Alabama. I’ve overlooked Hurts’ stagnant passing numbers all season because a) Alabama hasn’t needed them, and b) He has continued to produce as a focal point of the Crimson Tide’s ground game. In a game when Bama badly needed his arm against an elite Auburn defense, though, Hurts had one of his worst days: Excluding a meaningless, 65-yard heave as time expired, he was 12 of 22 for 112 yards and completed just three passes for first downs. (LW: 1)
3. Drew Lock, Missouri. After a rough start, Lock lit up the stat sheet with multiple touchdown passes in nine consecutive games, good enough to set the single-season SEC record. On a better team he’d be a star; if he opts to come back for a bonanza senior season rather than toss his name into the draft, he surely will be. Then again, as it is he might already be the SEC’s most NFL-ready passer since Cam Newton. (LW: 4)
4. Jake Fromm, Georgia. All due respect to Jake, who has a chance to leave Georgia someday as a legend, but the less screen time he gets against Auburn relative to Chubb and Michel, the better. (LW: 5)
5. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. The only conceivable bright spot of Fitzgerald’s terrible ankle injury against Ole Miss is that the reaction demonstrated how valuable he is to the program. He expects to be back at full speed next year, but whether the Bulldogs’ new coach knows how to maximize his limited skill set as effectively as Dan Mullen did is another question. (LW: 3)
6. Danny Etling, LSU. Etling’s not going to go down as one of the greats in Baton Rouge, but he did deliver arguably the best performance of his career against Texas A&M en route to finishing the regular season on a three-game winning streak, which is an awfully long way from getting benched in a loss to Troy. LSU rebounded from that debacle to win six of its last seven — the only loss coming at Alabama — with Etling throwing nine TDs vs. zero picks in the wins. (LW: 7)
7. Jake Bentley, South Carolina. Bentley’s season went the other way, ending on its lowest point in a 34-10 loss to Clemson. A couple months ago I would have considered that a major disappointment, but it was in keeping with the steady decline in Bentley’s output over the past six weeks. Maybe a bowl game will offer a reminder of his potential as a jumping-off point for a crucial junior season. (LW: 6)
8. Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss. Ta’amu didn’t enter the lineup until late October, but he may have been Ole Miss’ MVP: Had he played enough games to qualify, he would have finished as the SEC leader in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and overall efficiency. Whether he has any chance of competing with Shea Patterson next spring — Ta’amu’s numbers were better than Patterson’s, though he didn’t have to play against Alabama or Auburn — Matt Luke owes his backup QB an awful lot. (LW: 8)
9. Nick Starkel, Texas A&M. Starkel began the season as A&M’s starter, ended it as A&M’s starter, and ultimately outplayed his main competitor, true freshman Kellen Mond, over the course of the year. How much any of that will count for next year under a new coaching staff is anybody’s guess. (LW: 11)
10. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky. When I profiled Johnson in October, Kentucky was 5-1 and beginning to make some noise in the East. Since, the Wildcats are 2-4 and failed to score 20 points in three of the four losses. How much is there really to say about a guy who closes the year with just one TD pass and zero INTs over the last five games? (LW: 9)
11. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt. Shurmur went off the rails in November losses to Kentucky and Missouri, throwing more than twice as many interceptions in those two games alone (seven) than he did the entire rest of the season (three). Otherwise his junior campaign was one of the most prolific in Vandy history, and still resulted in a 1-7 conference record. (LW: 12)
12. Austin Allen, Arkansas. Allen took a regular beating and played hurt this year, but it’s hard to see how his presence in any of the four games he missed at midseason could have made a difference for his doomed head coach. Arkansas went 2-2 in those games (both wins coming by one point in wild, comeback fashion) and when he did play Allen’s production regressed significantly compared to 2016 in almost every category. (LW: 10
13. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee. He doesn’t have much to show for it statistically, but Guarantano was an upgrade over Quinten Dormady — it would be almost impossible not to be — and he showed some flashes of potential for the Vols’ next coach to work with. In two or three years the rock-bottom end to this season could come to seem like a distant memory. (LW: 14)
14. Feleipe Franks, Florida. I don’t know that the same can be said for Franks, who seemed to regress as the Gators’ season fell apart and might be broken beyond repair. Dan Mullen has always preferred big, athletic types behind center who can effectively double as a workhorse running back; Franks has the size for that role, but not the mobility or the mentality. Florida doesn’t have another returning QB on the roster who has taken a college snap, but as bad as it was this year, resetting the offense in 2018 with a talented freshman at the controls frankly doesn’t seem like the worst idea. (LW: 13)
Now, because this is the last edition of QB Curve for 2017 — it goes by, doesn’t it? — here’s how all 18 quarterbacks who started multiple games this season stacked up according to 10 statistical categories, in handy chart form:
That’s all for this year. Looking at some of the names scheduled to be back in 2018, here’s guessing the next one will be better.