Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) and ex-QB Justin Fields.

Fromm over Fields made sense for way UGA plays. Maybe that’s the problem.

To say that Kirby Smart kept the wrong quarterback assumes that the Georgia coach would have deployed Justin Fields in a way that maximized his talent. That’s not a given. Playing Jake Fromm over Fields was defensible given Fromm’s track record and Smart’s preferred style of play. It’s the second part that might be the problem. 

Fields transferred to Ohio State and became an instant star in coach Ryan Day’s modernized offense. Joe Burrow did the same at LSU with passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, who was poached from the Saints by coach Ed Orgeron. Those quarterbacks are in the College Football playoff alongside two others who thrive in wide-open offenses: Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma). 

Meanwhile, Georgia’s offense has plodded with a power running game that features tailback D’Andre Swift behind a big offensive line. It’s been good enough for 11 victories and an SEC East title. It wasn’t good enough to make the CFP even with an elite defense. LSU and (especially) Oklahoma are so-so on defense, but made the playoff because they are so good with the ball. 

Georgia pedestrian passing game has held it back. Look at the Power Five leaders in adjusted yards per pass attempt. The leader is Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who might be in the CFP if he hadn’t gotten hurt. Hurts is No. 2, Burrow is No. 3 and Fields is No. 4. Fromm ranks 27th. 

Georgia tried throwing deep more often later this season. But is usually looked like a team trying to do something that’s not in its nature. Missed throws and dropped passes were trends. That continued Saturday in the SEC Championship game, when LSU’s so-so defense shut down the Bulldogs.

After the game, Smart rejected the view that he wants to play “man ball” no matter what. Georgia tried for some big pass plays against LSU. Fromm missed some throws, and his targets dropped others. Smart attributed those season-long issues to injuries within a wide receiver corps that lacks a deep threat because he hadn’t properly fortified it via recruiting. 

Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU and Ohio State all have a wide receiver expected to be taken early in the next NFL draft (the Crimson Tide have three.) Smart implied Georgia’s offense would look more like those teams’ if they had better wide receivers. If so, that’s an indictment of Smart’s player ability to quickly nurture his top recruits into playmakers. 

Nick Saban’s knack for doing that was a big reason the Crimson Tide beat Georgia in the 2017 national championship game. On that day the three future NFL wide receivers were freshmen making big plays: Jerry Juedy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs. 

Smart famously has pulled Georgia’s recruiting closer to Saban’s level. The Bulldogs had three wide receivers ranked among the top 25 nationally at their position in the past two recruiting classes. But those players haven’t helped make the passing game explosive.

That brings me back to Georgia’s quarterback. When Fields left and other high-profile QBs transferred, I noted that Georgia still was in very good shape with Fromm. He had won an SEC championship. Fromm is smart, tough and accurate. In the SEC, only Alabama had a better QB coming back (that’s before Burrow broke out). 

I’m reluctant to criticize Fromm now. He’s not paid a salary, after all. But, even considering his thin group of receivers, Fromm just wasn’t as good as a junior. And his margin for error in big games has been smaller this season because Georgia isn’t as consistent or explosive running the ball. 

That’s another mark against Smart. The offensive line he built to be play “man ball” got overwhelmed by LSU on Saturday. The same thing happened during the Oct. 12 loss to South Carolina (injuries were a factor, but it’s supposed to be a deep group). It happened to Georgia at Baton Rouge last season, against Texas in last season’s Sugar Bowl and against Alabama in the national championship game. 

It’s hard for any offense to function under those circumstances. LSU and Oklahoma have a chance because Burrow and Hurts can make something out of nothing and are threats to run. Lawrence’s mobility is an asset, too. Fromm isn’t that kind of quarterback, but he is a good fit for a style of play that Smart has used to win a lot of games. 

After Georgia’s latest disappointing loss, Smart said he’s not married to that formula. He said the offense is “built around the players you have.” Smart listed his offensive line and running backs as assets and cited the wide receivers as a detriment. He didn’t mention the quarterback. 

It was a valid decision for Smart to stick with Fromm over Fields because of the way Smart wants to play. But with Fields guiding Ohio State’s explosive offense to the CFP, same as three other dynamic QBs, it looks like Smart’s way is part of the problem.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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