LOS ANGELES — Brock Bowers was walking off the elevator at the J.W. Marriott Hotel planning to grab some breakfast when he got an unexpected call. It was from a UGA sports communication administrator. They needed him.
Star quarterback Stetson Bennett was supposed to join coach Kirby Smart and defensive MVP Javon Bullard at the champions press conference early Tuesday at another hotel. But Bennett apparently was not available, so the Bulldogs turned to their dependable sophomore tight end as a fill-in.
“Brock’s always wanted to be in Stetson’s shoes, so today he gets to,” Smart quipped.
Said Bowers: “They just called and said, ‘Hey, you’re in the bullpen. Come meet us down here in the lobby.’”
Offensive MVP of last year’s national championship win and the one here Monday night, Bennett infamously was captured on video turning up a bottle of “Old Pappy” bourbon while celebrating the Bulldogs first title in 41 years last year in Indianapolis in 2022. The next morning, he was not in top form for a live interview on “Good Morning America.”
Asked exactly where Bennett was Tuesday morning, Smart grinned and shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t see him, obviously.”
A UGA spokesperson said Bennett was expected to be on the team plane that was scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Team buses were scheduled to arrive in Athens at 7:30 p.m., depending upon unforeseen travel fluctuations.
There will be more celebrations then and again Saturday. A parade down Lumpkin Street to Sanford Stadium will start at 12:30 p.m. There will be a Dawg Walk at 1 p.m., and there will be a trophy presentation at 2 p.m.
Meantime, Smart already was setting his sights on building – and rebuilding – his 2023 team. The Bulldogs were occupying the No. 1 spot in the many “way too early” Top 25 polls that were on the internet Tuesday. Neither Smart nor the two sophomore players who flanked him on the champions’ podium wanted to entertain predictions of a three-peat less than 24 hours after becoming the first repeat champions in a decade.
The last consecutive three-time champion in college football was Minnesota in the 1930s. The work to at least attempt that feat already had begun when Delta’s Vince Dooley jet left the LAX runway Tuesday morning.
“I’ll be thinking about next year the entire flight home,” Smart said. “(What can) we can do right now, and what’s important now, right? That’s our motto. There will be time to take off, it’s just not today, because decisions are imminent.”
On the surface, it appears that Georgia will have six offensive starters and six defensive starters returning from the team that went 15-0. Underclassmen such as junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter, third-year sophomore offensive tackle Broderick Jones, junior tight end Darnell Washington and third-year sophomore cornerback Kelee Ringo already have made public or private declarations for the NFL because of first-round draft projections. Others, such as fifth-year senior safety Christopher Smith, sixth-year outside linebacker Robert Beal and, yes, the sixth-year Bennett, either exhausted their eligibility or are ready to move on to pro careers.
Still others, such as junior tackle Warren McClendon, third-year sophomore center Sedrick Van Pran and junior nose guard Nazir Stackhouse, have to decide whether to turn pro or return to make a run at a third title. But, by and large, this was a young Georgia football team, with only two seniors on the offensive two-deep and three on the defense. Those unable to make it onto the two-deep also have decisions to make.
As ever, the NCAA transfer portal beckons for those seeking more playing time.
“We have several players on our team who stuck it out,” Smart said. “They didn’t have to. They could have said, ‘I’m going into the portal,’ but they didn’t because they wanted to win a national championship. That makes me want to cry because they chose the team over themselves.”
The most glaring replacement on the roster will be the guy who was AWOL on Tuesday. Doubted and questioned almost until his final game as a Bulldog, Bennett leaves not only as the greatest quarterback in Georgia history but also the greatest player in Georgia history. At least that was the social media proclamation of at least three former Bulldogs quarterbacks: Aaron Murray, Matthew Stafford and Mike Cavan.
The competition to replace Bennett will be the most scrutinized in America this spring and summer. Contested between rising senior Carson Beck, rising sophomore Brock Vandagriff and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton, Smart said the successor will be determined based on their performances on the Woodruff Practice Fields.
There will be considerably less angst over several other positions, such as “star” and “tight end.” Those spots seem to be in the good hands of the sophomores who flanked Smart on the champions’ podium.
Smart referred to Bowers and Bullard as “Zoom babies.” They were the product of the Class of 2020 recruiting cycle that, thanks to the pandemic, had to be conducted virtually via video conference calls and the exchange of homemade workout videos.
Bowers, from Napa, Calif., didn’t even get a senior season as high school football was shut down completely for the year.
“This guy sent in 100 videos,” Smart said of Bowers. “… (Offensive coordinator Todd) Monken Zoomed with him and his coach to sell them on how he could be part of an offense that hadn’t used the tight end that way.”
Smart continued on Bullard. “This guy was sending in videos out in his backyard. He’s got a military background. When you’ve got a military background, you’ve probably got some toughness and some makeup about you that makes you the right way.
“We’ve been fortunate to make some good decisions on kids that maybe other programs didn’t value their intangibles enough.”
Bennett certainly would be included in that lot as well. A former walk-on from Blackshear, Bennett had to go to junior college to get playing time, came back, finally earned the starting job and led the Bulldogs to back-to-back national championships.
But everybody knows that story now. No need to rehash it at another champions press conference.