ATHENS -- Bruce Rollinson was watching the Georgia-Alabama game from his home in Santa Ana, Calif., on Saturday and found himself yelling the same thing at his television that a lot of the Bulldogs' fans probably were.
“Yeah, I watched the whole thing, and I’m saying, ‘Come on, get him off the bench; put him in!’” Rollinson said Wednesday morning. “But they didn’t.”
As the head coach at Mater Dei High School, Rollinson had a vested interest in the Bama-Georgia game, which was the most-watched college football game of 2020 so far. Not only did he coach Georgia quarterback JT Daniels, but he also coached two Alabama players in quarterback Bryce Young and backup offensive lineman Tommy Brown. So, Rollinson was significantly engaged in the proceedings.
But it was Daniels to whom he was referring in this particular instance. And while he remains in communication with one of his favorite former pupils, Rollinson is as mystified as anybody else as to why the Bulldogs have not played Daniels this season.
“I’m rooting for them to turn him loose,” Rollinson said. “I’m not sure if JT might be the ticket to promised land for them, but something is holding him back. I know it’s not his work ethic, I know it’s not the mental aspect of the game because there’s not a smarter kid in that facility than JT Daniels when it comes to the understanding football. So, I can only deduct that it’s still physical.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart has been asked a lot about Daniels this week. Stetson Bennett has done a fine job as the Bulldogs' quarterback since stepping in during the second quarter of the opener against Arkansas and leading them to victory in that game and two others since. But some of Bennett’s limitations were revealed in the 41-24 loss to No. 2 Alabama.
Two of his three interceptions in that game came during the third quarter when Georgia’s offense just couldn’t do anything right. The Bulldogs ended up getting blanked after halftime, which helped the Crimson Tide go from four down at the half to up 17 at the end of the game.
Credit: Georgia Bulldogs
By all accounts, Georgia never considered turning to the 6-3, 210-pound Daniels over the 5-11, 198-pound Bennett while the situation was deteriorating in real time Saturday night. Meanwhile, Smart has been vigorous in his defense of Bennett’s play, both against Alabama and on the whole of these first four weeks of the season.
But through an unexpected turn of events in the SEC that resulted in a schedule reshuffle, Georgia suddenly has a bye Saturday and, therefore, an extra week to prepare for its next game at Kentucky on Oct. 31. It would follow that if the Bulldogs were considering a change at quarterback, or at least a restructuring of the rotation, this would be the time they would do it.
Hence, all the questions Smart has fielded about Daniels this week.
“JT is going out each day, working,” Smart said on the SEC coaches' teleconference call Wednesday. “I think his mobility is getting better as time goes through and he’s moving around. He’s taking a lot of reps and growing and he’s competing, just like D’Wan (Mathis) is and Carson (Beck) is.”
Daniels easily is the most experienced quarterback on Georgia’s roster. He started every game in which he played at Southern Cal, which was 11 as a 17-year-old freshman and one last season. In all, he has logged 742 career snaps in games. He has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,887 yards and 15 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
At issue is Daniels' right knee. That’s the one in which he suffered a torn ACL in the second quarter of Southern Cal’s season opener against Fresno State in early September 2019. Daniels underwent a knee reconstruction later that month, which would make him about 13 months removed from that surgery at this point.
However, Smart revealed earlier this month that Daniels underwent a second procedure on that knee. It since has been confirmed that the sophomore quarterback had an arthroscopic procedure to remove scar tissue from his right knee in January. That would have delayed his rehabilitation at least a couple of weeks or more.
Regardless, Daniels was “medically cleared to play" by Georgia doctors Sept. 28, or two days after the Arkansas game. But, while he has dressed out and traveled for all three games since, Daniels has yet to take a snap in a game for the Bulldogs.
Rollinson believes there’s a reason for that.
“I can only speculate because we haven’t talked about this, but it’s one thing to be cleared, and it’s another thing to know that you’re ‘back,’” Rollinson said. “I’ve had a lot of thoroughbred athletes over the years that are cleared but they’re tentative. The knee is a tricky thing. I would speculate that there has to be something that they’re smelling, feeling, seeing that’s not right. But, again, I don’t know.”
Rollinson did allow that he sent “several motivating text messages” to Daniels since he was cleared. While he did so to encourage his former quarterback, he also warned him to “be smart, be careful, you’ve got a lot of downs left in you, don’t rush it,” Rollinson said.
Smart was pointedly asked Tuesday if there was a difference in Daniels being medically cleared and being physically and mentally ready to compete in the SEC.
“Medically cleared is saying he can go out and get tackled and play football,” Smart said. “It’s unique to that position because the quarterback doesn’t go live … until real game time. And then everything else is revolved around who we think gives us the best chance to win. That’s ultimately the decision you have.”
Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, now an analyst for CBS, said on Drew Butler’s Punt & Pass Podcast this week he didn’t think the Bulldogs' coaches stuck with Mathis long enough after he struggled in six possessions against Arkansas. Murray believes Mathis has the most upside of all of Georgia’s quarterbacks.
But with the Bulldogs now saddled with a loss and not in position to absorb another one, they really don’t have the time or luxury to vacillate much over who is manning the most important position on the field. Whatever they do, they must do it quickly and decisively.
“The toughest thing is getting enough reps to get guys prepared for a game,” Smart said. “You can’t prepare three or four quarterbacks to play in a game. You just don’t get enough time to do that. We do get a lot of time this week to compete, to have reps.”
There is no doubt about where Rollinson stands on this discussion. Daniels is obviously “his guy” and Rollinson is biased in his assessment.
That said, Rollinson insists that Daniels, over and above all the great quarterbacks that have matriculated through Mater Dei – such as Young, Matt Barkley, Matt Leinhart, Max Wittek, and so on – is the most savvy when it comes to mastery of football concepts and systems. And he said it was specifically the presence of and system being installed by first-year Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken that lured Daniels into choosing the Bulldogs over all other suitors after he entered the transfer portal this past spring.
“I’m just a high school coach who believes in and loves his former player, but I know what he’s capable of and I know he’s in the right offensive scheme,” Rollinson said. “So, yeah, I’m rooting for them to turn him loose.”
The fact that Georgia hasn’t, Rollinson believes, has more to do with the Bulldogs' medical staff than their coaching staff.
“I just know JT Daniels and if he was 100 percent, he’d been pushing the envelope to play,” he said. “So, I just feel like something’s not right there. But it’s not my place to find out.”