No. 5 Georgia ‘aligned perfectly’ on sticking with Stetson Bennett at QB

Credit: Mark Cornelison

Credit: Mark Cornelison

There has been a lot of chatter about quarterbacks outside of Georgia’s camp this week. Then, again, why should this year be any different?

It seems like every year the Bulldogs are getting ready for a another monumental matchup against Florida down in Jacksonville, folks who cheer for the red and black seem to be grousing about who their team has playing quarterback.

That was definitely the case the last two years when Georgia arrived at the St. Johns River with Jake Fromm still at the controls. In 2018, everybody was pining for Justin Fields to start or at least play a bigger role after Fromm struggled and threw two interceptions in a 36-16 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. Fromm, then a sophomore, instead played every down against the ninth-ranked Gators and completed 17-of-24 passes 240 yards, three TDs and no picks on the way to a 36-17 victory.

It was the same scenario last year. Fromm came to Jacksonville fresh off two games in which he’d thrown three interceptions to one touchdown and averaged only 165 yards through the air. Against Florida, he connected on 20-of-30 throws for 279 yards, two touchdowns and, again, no interceptions.

That is not to say all Georgia quarterbacks get well against the Gators. Indeed, some signal-callers have turned in some stinkers on the field of many different names in northeastern Florida. But it is to say not everything we’re seeing on television sets on Saturday is the same that coaches are seeing Sunday through Thursday on Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens.

That must be the case again this year. Despite a two games worth of subpar performances from Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s quarterback at the moment, the Bulldogs continue to stand steadfastly behind him.

“I’m real confident because I see what we do every day in practice with Stetson,” said sophomore running back Zamir White. “So, yes, I’m real confident in the whole offense.”

Said left tackle Jamaree Salyer: “I feel very confident in Stet. I feel as much confidence in him as I do any other quarterback.”

Of course, teammates are effectively paid to say that about whoever is playing quarterback for them. Coaches aren’t. They’re paid to win games with whoever plays quarterback, and that’s a different dynamic altogether.

Yet, Smart and Georgia’s offensive staff continue to stick with Bennet. That appears to be the case again this week No. 5-ranked Bulldogs prepare to take on No. 8 Florida in an SEC Eastern Division elimination game this Saturday. That is despite the fact that Bennett has thrown five interceptions and completed just 50.9% of his 53 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games.

Georgia went 1-1 and the Bulldogs were outscored in those two games 44-38.

The voice not being heard in all this is the one belonging to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken. He was brought to UGA from the NFL with the expressed purpose of making Georgia’s offense more explosive. With the Bulldogs' averaging 29.2 points so far, that objective would have to be considered a date.

Then, again, with the turnover Georgia was incurring on offense – nine starters and 31 lettermen lost – instant success might be considered unrealistic, if not impossible. In any case, Smart insists he and Monken are on the same page. And, he clarified, it’s Monken’s call to make.

“He has total autonomy when it comes to offensive decisions; that’s what you hire people to do, to do a job,” Smart said. “You turn it over to them and say, ‘Hey, what’s the best job we can do?’ He has a tremendous staff with great experience. … All of those guys (make) a concerted effort … about personnel and plays.”

Both in the last game and the one before against Alabama, Smart said they never once considered turning to backups D’Wan Mathis or JT Daniels. Preliminary indications are that’s won’t be the case this week either.

Like last week, Smart offered the most subtle of votes of confidence for Bennett.

“Ultimately, we feel like Stetson gives us the best chance to win right now,” Smart said on Monday. “D’Wan gets a lot of work (with the No. 1 offense), a lot reps, and competes really hard at that and continues to improve. When he shows us that he is the better guy, then he will be the guy up. Same thing with JT.”

Meanwhile, there are other dynamics at work behind the scenes. Daniels, an over-the-summer transfer and former starter from Southern Cal, actually is getting almost all his work with the scout team. That means he’s No. 3 at best and probably not anywhere close to overtaking Bennett, or relieving him in the course of a game.

Some of that – but clearly not all – might have to do with the knee injury that wiped out his sophomore season with the Trojans.

“The only physical limitations (with Daniels) are still coming off the knee,” Smart said. “He hasn’t shown a lot of (problems). He’s been out of the brace, been able to throw the ball. He’s done a good job.”

Mathis is a much more likely option. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound redshirt freshman started the opener and closed out two victories for the Bulldogs. For the season, Mathis has completed 62.5% of his passes for 55 yards and an interception.

Again, there’s no way to know how he’s looked in practice other than hearsay. But there is anecdotal evidence that Mathis is growing increasingly frustrated with his role. His body language on the sideline during the last couple of games has not been positive, and there have been reports of some doors being slammed afterward.

Smart admitted he met with Mathis after Sunday’s walk-through practice at the Payne Indoor Facility.

“I talked to him for a while,” Smart said. “We kind of visit each week with the quarterbacks to keep them updated on where things are. He wants to play. He is a competitor. He wants an opportunity to get in and compete. We gave he and JT a lot of reps in the off-week. We will continue to give guys as we can get ready reps to grow those guys and get them ready to play.”

Whether that manifests itself in an opportunity this Saturday against the Gators in Georgia’s most important game of the season is another matter. The Bulldogs have occasionally gone with a new starter in this game over the years and it rarely has gone well. Just harken back to Faton Bauta’s debut in 2015 or Joe Tereshinki III in 2005.

It seems more likely that Georgia will “stick with Stet” once again. Therefore, the emphasis this week has been on improving in deficient areas, which include avoiding turnovers, deflections at the line of scrimmage and identifying the open receiver rather than locking in one from the snap.

“We can improve by protecting the ball, sliding once you make a good decision to run, making good decisions with the bal,” Smart said. “…We can improve with our route-running, route-communication, our ability to finish blocks on the perimeter when we get the ball on the perimeter. There’s tons of places we can improve.”

The Bulldogs will get no argument there. The bigger question comes with not seeing improvement some or all of those areas.

Smart said he and Monken and the entire offensive staff discuss every day whether they’re getting the most they possibly can out of the quarterback position. They’ll make a change as soon as they believe it’s in the best interest to do so.

“The decisions we make as coaches are decisions we have to make,” Smart said. They are tough decisions, no different than they are at who plays corner, who plays tackle. There are a lot of really good competitions out there going on."

As for Bennett being the Bulldogs best option at this juncture, Smart said he and Monken are “aligned perfectly.”