Though Bennett is a fifth-year senior, he has the option of playing one more year if he chooses. Like all other college football players, whether they participated during last year’s coronavirus pandemic season, the NCAA ruled last year that the 2020 season of eligibility would not count against FBS players.
The same goes for more than half of the players Georgia expected to participate in Saturday’s ceremony, according to coach Kirby Smart. UGA has been trying to get a grasp on the exact number because each participant will receive gifts from the athletic association and be announced before the crowd gathered for Saturday’s final home game at Sanford Stadium.
“We’re going to have somewhere between 28 and 30,” Smart said Wednesday during the SEC coaches’ teleconference call. “It’s gotten narrowed down to that point in terms of guys who have decided they’re going to walk or not. And, yes, Stetson will be one of them.
“But of the 28 to 30, there’s probably 16 or 17, over half, that will have remaining eligibility and are considering that eligibility.”
The elder Bennett said he and his son talked on the phone for about 45 minutes Tuesday night, like they do most every week. It wasn’t all about Senior Day ceremonies, but the subject came up.
“At first he said he didn’t know if he was going to walk or not,” Bennett’s father said. “I said, ‘I think you should; I think you deserve to. You’re graduating, and that’s what graduates do. They walk.’ So that’s what he’s going to do.”
Bennett graduates in December with a degree in economics from UGA’s Terry College of Business. What he does beyond this season is another question. But Bennett has said repeatedly throughout the year that he simply loves football and wants to play “for as long as I can.”
“He’s got a grown-man decision to make,” Bennett’s father said.
Bennett’s decision will have repercussions on Georgia’s quarterback position going forward. He took over as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback after junior JT Daniels went out with a back injury in the fourth week of the season. Bennett has been the man under center ever since, with undefeated Georgia winning seven of its games with him as the starter.
Heading into the home finale, Bennett ranks No. 8 in the nation in quarterback rating and tied for fifth (and No. 1 in the SEC) in yards per attempt passing (9.8 yards). He’s also brought more of a quarterback-run dynamic to Georgia’s offense. He’s averaging 206.4 total yards and 10.1 yards per play.
Meanwhile, Daniels has played only three offensive possessions for the Bulldogs since he was cleared from his lat-muscle strain Oct. 17. Those series all came after Georgia led Missouri 33-3 in the third quarter Nov. 6. Daniels did not play in the Bulldogs’ 41-17 win over Tennessee last week.
Georgia has two quarterbacks in addition to Bennett and Daniels. Sophomore Carson Beck has played in two games this season and freshman Brock Vandagriff took a few snaps in one contest. In addition to three walk-ons, the Bulldogs also have a commitment from quarterback Gunner Stockton of Rabun County High. Now the state record-holder for career passing yards, Stockton has drawn some 5-star quarterback ratings.
In the age of the transfer portal, some of the other quarterbacks might opt to leave to try their fortunes elsewhere if they know that Bennett is back for a sixth season.
Regardless, Bennett’s story has served as an inspiration to many. A former walk-on from Blackshear, this is the second time in his career he has worked his way into a starting role at Georgia. Last season, Bennett beat out D’Wan Mathis to start five games before a shoulder injury opened the door for Daniels, a transfer from USC.
Daniels went 4-0 against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri and Cincinnati and opened the 2021 season not only as the designated starter but, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Now Bennett, who began the 2021 season as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 quarterback, is the No. 1 quarterback on the nation’s No. 1 team. And his story is serving as an inspiration for many.
This week, Bennett was named one of three finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy. That is an award given annually to the most outstanding FBS player who began his career as a walk-on.
“I’m super proud for Stetson; what a great honor,” Smart said Wednesday. “I don’t know that people give that award the proper recognition. It’s probably one of the just coolest, greatest awards to me, because it means, ‘I went here to score without a scholarship. I went here to do something special.’ And walk-ons are special because they do it for free. … By the time they get to that award, they’re on scholarship and they’ve proved everybody wrong.”
Bennett definitely has done that. For a few minutes before Saturday’s game, he’ll have an opportunity to be recognized for his accomplishments.
“I just hope they cheer for him when they call his name out,” Bennett’s father said.