Georgia’s Stetson Bennett wins Manning Award, eyes NFL

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS — Stetson Bennett finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, but he finished first for the Manning Award, which goes annually to the best quarterback in college football.

It was a fitting honor for the Georgia sixth-year senior from Blackshear, considering he led the Bulldogs to back-to-back national championships and won MVP awards for all four of the College Football Playoff games in which he played the last two seasons.

ExploreGeorgia lineman McClendon to honor Willock in Senior Bowl

Now in its 19th year, the Manning is the only quarterback award that takes into account candidates’ bowl and playoff performances in its balloting. Created by the Allstate Sugar Bowl to honor the accomplishments of Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning, the award is voted on by a panel of local and national media, as well as each of the Mannings.

USC sophomore Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 10 in New York. He was followed by TCU’s Max Duggan, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Bennett.

Bennett attended the Manning Passing Academy last summer in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

“Learn stuff, take notes, go back and watch interviews, try to do it like them,” Bennett said in a video conference call with reporters Monday. “I remember my dad telling me when I was growing up, ‘Watch Peyton and Eli. They do it right.’ So, I always did. This is special for me.”

Bennett is the fourth consecutive SEC quarterback to win the Manning. The other finalists this year were Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), Hendon Hooker (Tennessee), Drake Maye (North Carolina), Bo Nix (Oregon), Michael Penix Jr., (Washington), Will Rogers (Mississippi State), Bryce Young (Alabama), Duggan, Stroud and Williams.

In three postseason games this season (SEC Championship, CFP semifinal in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and CFP Championship), Bennett completed 72.8% of his passes for 976 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also ran for three scores and was intercepted once. For the season, he was 310-of-454 passing (68.3%) for 4,127 yards and 27 touchdowns to go with a team-best 10 rushing TDs.

ExplorePhotos: Athens grieves for Devin Willock, Chandler LeCroy

Despite starting just two full seasons, Bennett ended his Georgia career with 8,428 yards and 66 touchdowns. He ranks in the top five in UGA history in pass completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense, completion percentage and average yards per play. Most impressively, the Bulldogs were 29-3 in games Bennett started.

Next on Bennett’s checklist is trying to earn a spot on an NFL roster. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound quarterback says don’t count him out.

“People are going to have their opinions,” he said. “My job is to go out there and play football, to get the ball in athletes’ hands and do it consistently and play hard and play to win. People can say whatever, I hear it, but I don’t really let it bother me.”

Bennett spoke more humbly and expressed more appreciation to Georgia football fans on Monday than he did at the Bulldogs’ national championship celebration Jan. 14.

“It was nuts,” he said. “Them hating me, me hating them, us falling in love together and coming back, playing football, I mean, it was special. I wouldn’t change a single thing. I don’t think I’d be here without it being that way. I just hope that everybody who was there and everybody who was with me and everybody I was with knows I appreciate the heck out of it – everything.”

Bennett was asked about losing two friends Jan. 15, when offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy were killed in a 2:45 a.m. car crash in Athens.

“They were both special people,” Bennett said. “I don’t know, it’s tough to swallow. They will always be with us, and we won’t ever forget them.”