With Lambert, UGA is banking on no surprises

It’s not that coaches hate the idea of freshmen playing. Lots of freshmen do. (The biggest mistake of Mark Richt’s time at Georgia – well, other than Faton Bauta – was redshirting Knowshon Moreno.) But there’s a difference between playing a freshman and starting one at quarterback. It’s why I figured Greyson Lambert, the Man Who Will Not Go Away, would be the choice in Week 1. Sure enough, he is.

He mightn’t be in Week 4, but Week 1 is different. As Kirby Smart has noted, the difference between college and pro football is that there’s no exhibition season. The first time you see guys wearing a different uniform, they’re going flat-out to win and you are, too. As any coach can tell you, the quickest way to lose is to have your quarterback mess up.

I say again: Lambert as No. 1 in Week 1 should have shocked no one. It would, however, be a surprise if he’s still starting come November. We’ve seen enough to know that he’s good enough to keep a team competitive – that day in the rain against Alabama being the exception – but not so good he can be the driving force in a victory over any opponent of consequence. (Which is the point: Georgia with Lambert hasn’t beaten anybody of consequence.)

Eric Zeier didn’t start Game 1 of Year 1. He backed up Greg Talley until it was obvious even to Ray Goff that this was no backup. Matthew Stafford didn’t start Game 1 of Year 1. Joe Tereshinski III did. (Stafford was listed as co-No. 3 alongside Blake Barnes; Joe Cox was No. 2.) But Stafford was the starter by midseason and through the mostly banner years of 2007 and 2008. I expect something similar will happen with Jacob Eason. He’ll get his start eventually, maybe even next week if Saturday in the Dome goes sideways. Just not this start.

Had Eason been a redshirt freshman and not a guy eight months removed from high school, it might have been different. Coaches are less leery of a quarterback who has been through a year’s practice. (This not just in: Football coaches are conservative by nature.) Heck, Jameis Winston won a national championship as a redshirt freshman. But there’s something about that “true freshman” label that’s terrifying if the TF in question is a QB and you’re his coach.

Ask Dabo Swinney. He’s a daring guy. (He ordered a pass off a fake punt to a defensive lineman against Oklahoma in a playoff game going wrong.) But he did not – repeat, did not – start the great Deshaun Watson against Georgia in Athens on Aug. 31, 2014. Clemson’s starter was senior Cole Stoudt. Watson played a little and led the Tigers to a touchdown. They lost 45-21, not that the freshman did anything wrong.

The longer Georgia’s quarterback derby went without a clear winner, the more you had to believe Lambert would get the opening nod. Nobody doubts that Eason is the bigger talent. (If he isn’t, Georgia has real problems going forward.) But common sense holds that, if it’s close, a coach will err on the side of the known. We know Lambert isn’t great. We also know he isn’t reckless.

In a game where the Bulldogs should make hay on the ground, the last thing Georgia wants is a quarterback handing the ball to North Carolina. For all the times Lambert’s passes were almost intercepted last season, the pesky fact remains: He actually threw only two INTs — two fewer than Bauta delivered over four quarters in Jacksonville.

From Smart’s Monday briefing: “I have no reservations about a guy’s age. If you’re old enough to play, then you’re old enough to start. If you’re good enough to play, then you’re good enough to start.”

That’s true for every position except one — the position Eason plays. Lambert will never be the people’s choice, but he’s again his head coach’s.

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