ATHENS -- Georgia quarterback JT Daniels has not been cleared to play. That was the word from coach Kirby Smart after the Bulldogs completed their 17th of 25 preseason practices Tuesday.
While that may seem unsettling 10 days before the season opener, Smart said he fully expects the sophomore quarterback from California to be cleared sometime before the 4 p.m. kickoff at Arkansas on Sept. 26. Besides, it probably won’t be until then that Smart will reveal whether Daniels or one of the Bulldogs' other three quarterbacks will start that day against the Razorbacks.
“If we didn’t think he’d be cleared, then we wouldn’t be practicing him,” Smart said during a post-practice briefing Tuesday, his first in 10 days. “But he’s continuing to practice, and so is D’Wan (Mathis), Carson (Beck) and Stetson (Bennett). So, as far as we can tell it will probably be a game-time decision.”
Smart revealed that Daniels had a second knee surgery last year, one that occurred several months after having an ACL tear repaired. Daniels started every game as a freshman at USC as well as the opening game of last season before suffering the knee injury on his last offensive play of the first half in the opener against Fresno State.
"The interesting thing about JT is he had a repair done -- I want to say it was December or January -- where they had to go in and do some other things to fix it from the original surgery. That was before we really knew about him or were with him. So that put him behind a little bit.”
To date, Daniels has not been tackled or hit in practice. But neither have any of the other quarterbacks, as they all wear black non-contact jerseys.
Smart emphasized that he expects Daniels to be good to go pending a final examination by the medical staff.
“We certainly expect him to get cleared and think he will get cleared, but that’s not my decision,” Smart said.
So, by all accounts, Georgia’s quarterback competition has been narrowed to Daniels, who is nine months removed from knee surgery, and Mathis, who is 16 months removed from brain surgery. But Smart was not willing to eliminate Bennett, a junior, from the conversation, or the freshman Beck, for that matter.
What’s undisputed is that Daniels and Mathis have gotten the majority of work in the Bulldogs' past two scrimmages. Mathis, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore, went first and played the entire first half with the No. 1 offense Saturday, while Daniels took all the second-half reps with that unit. Beck took all the snaps with the No. 2 offense, while Bennett did not play.
Daniels and Mathis got the majority of first-team snaps in the previous week’s scrimmage as well. Smart was asked if anything should be read into that.
“It was part of the rotation as far as each day,” Smart said. “It just so happened they were there that day. Each day we’ve got different guys that do with the (first team), and that’s the day (Mathis) fell on. So, for the most part, I think we’ve done really a good. ... We’ve haven’t rolled a different every guy, but we’ve got a rotation that we do, and that was part of the rotation.”
Bennett’s situation stands as the most curious of the four. He is the senior-most quarterback in camp in terms of age and eligibility. Yet he has been conspicuously absent from action in scrimmages and curiously obscure in UGA quarterback discussions.
“You could probably read (hierarchy) into it, but the biggest thing with Stetson is we have a body of work that we don’t have with the other players,” Smart said. "We have three kids that are really unknown, and you’ve got Stetson who took every single rep with the 2s and went all camp with the 2s. So if you look at the reps he’s taken, we’ve been able to evaluate him, and he’s done a really nice job in our scrimmages when he’s repped.
“But mostly it’s: We’ve seen him, and we’re trying to evaluate the other guys.”
The good news/bad news of all this is that Smart has been through this before. Last year, when Jake Fromm returned and Justin Fields transferred, was the only time in Smart’s five seasons as Georgia’s coach that he didn’t have some level of a quarterback controversy on his hands.
In 2016, it was a position battle between Greyson Lambert and Jacob Eason. In 2017, Fromm took over for an injured Eason, who later transferred. In 2018, it was the all-season debate and occasional rotation between Fields and Fromm.
This year, Smart resolved that the Bulldogs may play more than one quarterback. The hope is that one will make the decision obvious.
“This year it’s been a lot more calculated in terms of reps and what we do with each guy and how we develop each guy,” Smart said. “They’re all in different stages of their careers and they’re all getting better. And I’d argue that we’ve got a talented quarterback room in terms of depth. The important thing is getting the right one to lead this group."