D’Wan Mathis’ incredible journey from OR to QB1 for Georgia Bulldogs

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

ATHENS – There will be a new quarterback under center for the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday in Arkansas. That it could be D’Wan Mathis is as surprising as it is inspirational.

For the record, Georgia coach Kirby Smart has not announced a starter. It could well be sophomore transfer JT Daniels, pending final clearance of his surgically-repaired right knee, or one of the six other quarterbacks, two on scholarship and four walk-ons. But until the Bulldogs' offense takes the field Saturday, the odds favor Mathis getting the nod.

To say it has been a long journey for Mathis to get into that position would be an understatement. To start with, it is about 750 miles from Mathis' hometown of Belleville, Mich., to the UGA campus. And it’s another 800 miles, give or take a few, from Athens to Fayetteville, Ark. That’s where the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs are slated to open the delayed 2020 football season against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

But those are just physical distances. Mathis being in position to start the 4 p.m. nationally televised game (SEC Network) is more like a million miles from where he was 16 months ago.

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At that point, Mathis was just learning that the sinus headache that wouldn’t go away in the spring of 2019 was not caused by allergies or a head cold. In a remarkable collision of good fortune and medical detective work, UGA sports medicine director Ron Courson ordered a scan of Mathis' brain. The images disclosed a cyst in Mathis' sinus cavity, near his brain. Surgery would have to be scheduled immediately.

Mathis underwent surgery May 22, 2019. It was, as his mere continued presence on Georgia’s active roster attests, an unmitigated success.

“We thank God for Ron Courson’s expertise and his medical team because without them I don’t think all of this would have been possible for D’Wan,” Terence Mathis said. “I believe Georgia saved my son’s life.”

Mathis was cleared to work out with his teammates just six months after surgery, performed by Dr. Kimberly Walpert at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital. But Mathis was still far from being cleared to play football.

Since then, there have been hundreds of images taken and physical tests performed, along with dozens of procedures and check-ups. The Bulldogs were going to be anything but too careful.

In the meantime, Mathis was free to do whatever he wanted. He very easily could have decided the risks after continuing a football career just weren’t worth taking. But he never wavered about wanting to keep playing ball.

Mathis maintained all along he wanted to keep playing if at all possible.

“We had to go to like six NFL doctors to look at the scans and see the healing in his skull to be able to clear him,” Smart said.

Mathis was expected to be cleared for Georgia’s spring practice this year, but that never happened. The coronavirus pandemic shut down sports a week before spring ball was to commence.

Again, Mathis would have to wait.

“My last game was G-Day (of 2019),” Mathis said after the Bulldogs win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. “I look back and watch film on that every day. I just think, ‘Wow, I really took this for granted.’ None of this is promised. These people around me, I would have never seen them again.”

Mathis actually had a memorable performance in that spring game. Specifically, Mathis showed his speed and athletic ability on a 39-yard touchdown catch off a double-reverse pass from receiver Matt Landers. Otherwise, he went 15-of-28 passing for 113 yards and threw an interception as the third-team quarterback.

A couple of other things have happened since then to set up Mathis for success. One, he got special clearance to remain in Athens under the care of Courson and UGA’s medical staff after the rest of the team was sent home during that pandemic this past spring. And, two, Smart and several teammates mentioned Mathis' work as a scout-team quarterback in the second half of last season.

He wasn’t allowed to have contact, but Mathis was able to run the opposing teams' offenses against Georgia’s vaunted defense, which led the nation in scoring and rushing.

“That’s probably the best thing that happened to him,” Smart said. “He went down there and got some live reps with people coming at him. We never hit him, but he was able to go out and make some plays.”

Noted sophomore linebacker Nakobe Dean: “D’Wan’s probably one of the most athletic players on the team. His speed is crazy. And not just scout team. This year, when we’d go 1s on 1s, we always had to worry about him running down the field.”

Mathis' height is what catches people’s eye first. He stands 6-foot-6. But he actually recorded a 10.8 100-meter time at Oak Park High and is thought to be among the top 10 or so fastest players on Georgia’s team.

In the meantime, after losing about 15 pounds during his initial recovery from surgery, Mathis reportedly is back up to about 210 pounds. He’s still thin, but is “wiry strong,” according to teammates.

Whether Mathis continues to start for Georgia will be based not just on what happens in Saturday’s game, but in coming practices and games throughout the season. The health of his knee not withstanding, Daniels is a far more experienced quarterback. He took 742 games snaps at Southern Cal, including 12 starts, 11 as a true freshman. Mathis' total, of course, stands at zero.

So it stands to reason that a healthy Daniels is going to be better at getting in the signal from the sideline, calling the plays, reading the defense, making adjustments and distributing the ball accordingly.

Then, again, Mathis could do what his predecessor Jake Fromm did. He could go out Saturday and perform at such a level that he takes over not just for the season, but for a couple of them.

It wouldn’t be any more miraculous than what we’ve seen from Mathis already.

“D’Wan has been through so much,” Smart said. “He’s a bright-eyed, talented kid. There are a lot of guys who have confidence in D’Wan.”