Georgia’s Stetson Bennett carries walk-on torch into Alabama

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett passes against Tennessee during the first half of a football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

ATHENS -- Georgia people everywhere will be rooting for the Bulldogs and their diminutive quarterback when they take the field against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. But outside of Stetson Bennett’s immediate family, there’s probably no one cheering for him harder than one UGA letterman who lives in northeast Georgia.

Cory Phillips of Hartwell was the last Georgia walk-on to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs. A 6-foot, 210-pound graduate of Hart County High in 1998, Phillips started four games and played a significant role in five others for Georgia in 2000 after Quincy Carter went out with a season-ending thumb injury. Phillips finished his college career having played in 18 games for the Bulldogs and has a 2002 SEC championship ring to show for it.

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It took an extraordinary set of circumstances for Phillips to find his way onto the field for Georgia, including the decisions of five other highly recruited quarterbacks to leave the program. But he played hard and tended to play well whenever he got into games for the Bulldogs. The first pass of his career went for a 53-yard touchdown, and he threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a win against Kentucky in his first start.

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He had some great moments, for sure. But Phillips is hesitant to compare himself with “The Mailman.”

“He’s a lot better than me,” said Phillips, who finished with 1,378 career passing yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. “He definitely can run a lot better than me. We’d be sitting at third-and-27 on that scramble he had for a touchdown last week if I was quarterback.”

Bennett, a junior from Blackshear, is about to go where Phillips never went. Not Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Phillips actually accompanied the Bulldogs there in 2002 – but to a starting assignment against mighty Alabama in a nationally televised top-3 matchup.

Bennett’s journey to that appointment is well-documented. He grew up a Bulldogs fan, walked on in 2017, earned notice for his tremendous scout-team work, left for junior college, came back to Georgia on scholarship and became Georgia’s starter this season when defections, injuries and ineffective play provided an opening.

For now at least, he is the man for the Bulldogs. They have yet to lose with a pair of wins against top-15 teams and he has yet to throw an interception with Bennett under center. Heading into Saturday night’s contest, he has completed 63 percent of his passes for 689 yards and five touchdowns and he has gained 57 yards rushing with an 8-yard touchdown and a two-point conversion run.

Bennett hasn’t been perfect, but he has gotten Georgia to where it was supposed to be -- facing off against Alabama as the SEC’s preeminent teams.

“We’re just big fans of Stetson,” said Phillips, who lives in Hartwell with his wife, former UGA gymnast Courtney Whittle, and three children ages 9 to 13. “Having kids and everything now, we go to all the games, most years anyway, and the kids love it and all that. But it’s fun to see Stetson, No. 1, get his shot, because he deserves it, he’s worked for it. But he is immensely talented, and he was in high school, too.”

That’s one of the main differences in Bennett and Phillips. Phillips' highest honor in high school was all-region mention. Bennett walked on at Georgia despite 20 scholarship offers from mid-major and FCS programs. He accepted UGA’s offer to attend school as a “preferred walk-on."

Phillips said he basically just showed up at Georgia.

“I truly had to walk on,” Phillips says with a chuckle. “Like, they didn’t even know my name until I was standing in front of them. They didn’t even want to do my laundry.”

Both Phillips and Bennett got opportunities after others either failed or quit. Not only did Phillips show up the same year as Carter, but national recruits Daniel Cobb, Nate Hybl, Mike Usry and Jon England all came and went during his UGA tenure. Phillips closed out his career as David Greene’s understudy.

Likewise, Bennett walked on at Georgia the same year Jake Fromm signed. And when he came back from Jones County (Miss.) College in 2019, the Bulldogs also signed D’Wan Mathis. Since then, the Bulldogs added Carson Beck, Jamie Newman and JT Daniels.

But Newman left, Daniels has been hurt and Mathis struggled. So there sits Bennett, not only atop Georgia’s depth chart, but up at the top of some other important lists as well.

With a sample size of 11 quarters of play, Bennett enters the Alabama game ranked 20th nationally in pass efficiency (151.2). But that doesn’t really tell his story. A website called SEC Stat Cat breaks Bennett’s game down further. He’s tied with Florida’s Kyle Trask for first in the league in “pressured success rate” at 46.2 percent. That group also ranks him No. 1 in the league in quickest release time at 2.11 seconds and number two in downfield passes completed under pressure (60.7%).

In other words, Bennett is better than average in ad-lib and/or pressure situations. Moreover, his teammates have taken to him and rallied around him.

“I honestly think he’s just himself,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He doesn’t try to be someone else. He doesn’t try to artificially lead or fake it. He never did that while he was trying to compete for the job, and he hasn’t done it since he got the job. Stetson is who he is, I think the (offensive players) all trust him and rally around him because he understands what we’re trying to do and can put them in good situations.”

Bennett has been far from perfect. His lack of size creates some limitations and liabilities. And while he still hasn’t thrown an interception, he has been bailed out on that front between his receivers defending defenders and a couple of defensive drops.

But mostly Bennett has done exactly what the Bulldogs needed him to, which is to get them into the right play and distribute the football to Georgia’s playmakers. It pales in comparison with Alabama and its 51 points and 560 yards per game. Then again, with the Bulldogs' exceptional defense, Georgia doesn’t need that.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide is not sporting the type of defense they did when Smart was calling the shots as defensive coordinator. They just gave up 647 yards and 48 points to Ole Miss and are allowing 473 yards a game, the worst of the Nick Saban era.

There will be an opportunity for Georgia’s offense – and Bennett individually – to shine.

“Stet is confident in himself; he’s a competitor,” offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer said. “He goes out there and gives it everything he has every day. And he doesn’t like to lose.”

Phillips' teammates said a lot of the same things about him. They were truly blown away when he got his first career start on the road against Kentucky and out-dueled the incomparable Jared Lorenzen for a 34-30 victory.

Former Georgia quarterback Cory Phillips and his wife Courtney, a former Gym Dawg, pose with their three children at at Sanford Stadium. (Family photo)

Phillips knows what he felt like out jogging onto the field knowing he was going to start, and he can’t imagine how Bennett might feel Saturday night.

“Being perfectly honest, I never thought I’d get out there to start,” Phillips said of his time. “The nerves and excitement, the anticipation, if you don’t feel that in every game you probably shouldn’t play. That’s what you’re doing it for. You don’t want to screw it up; you want to get it done. You want to win.”

To pull it off as a walk-on, or a former one, well, that just makes it even more special, to the player and to the fan base.

Today, Phillips and his brother Spooner run a successful financial consulting business in Hartwell. He coaches his sons in youth football and attends all his daughter’s volleyball matches.

Out and about, Phillips still hears from people who remember his contributions at Georgia and what he was able to accomplish despite all odds.

“Fans know (walk-ons) aren’t going there because they got recruited; they’re there because they love the school and the team as much as they do,” Phillips said. “I think that’s why people want to see the walk-ons do well, because they know they’ve got a purist out there, somebody who just loves Georgia, too.”

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