QB Stetson Bennett’s heart for Georgia is hard to beat

Credit: Walt Beazley

Credit: Walt Beazley

ATHENS – Stetson Bennett III stood among a group of Georgia fans gathered in the stands at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday watching Stetson Bennett IV getting interviewed on the field. Bennett IV – Bennett III’s son – was the star of the day. He had just come off the bench to lift the No. 4 Bulldogs to a 37-10 comeback win over an Arkansas team that led at halftime.

Realizing he was incognito, Bennett’s father turned to a UGA fan standing next to him and asked, “so, what do you think of the quarterback situation now?”

“Well, hopefully JT Daniels will be available next week,” the man said flatly.

Bennett’s father paused a second, then asked, “well, what’d you think about that kid that came in today? I thought he played pretty good.”

“The fan says, ‘yeah, he did. He saved us. But, you know, he’s only 5-7. Wait 'til you see the kid when he comes by.”

Bennett III just laughed and walked away. He didn’t bother letting the man know he was “the kid’s” father, or that the man’s height estimate was more than four inches off.

“For the record, he’s 5-11 and 7/8s,” Bennett’s dad said emphatically. “He’s the width of your fingernail away from being 6-foot, and he weighs 198 pounds. That’s what they got him at in preseason camp. He’s gained 25 pounds of muscle since he’s been at Georgia. That’s what he’s done trying to be the man.”

That’s the big question for the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) heading into Week 2: Who is going to be “The Man” at quarterback as they play host to No. 7 Auburn (1-0) at Sanford Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN)?

It’s unlikely anybody outside the Butts-Mehre Football Complex will know until Saturday night’s kickoff. There are four options: Bennett, the fourth-year junior; the first-year transfer Daniels; redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, who started against Arkansas but did not play particularly well; or freshman Carson Beck, the 4-star signee from Jacksonville who came to UGA as an early enrollee in January.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s revelation Monday that Daniels has been cleared to play further heightens the anticipation about the quarterback position. Daniels, a former 5-star signee and starter at Southern Cal, is recovering from ACL surgery on his right knee. Daniels dressed out for Arkansas but was not cleared to play last Saturday.

But Bennett put up a pretty good argument against the Razorbacks that he ought to get first crack this week. He came off the bench to relieve an ineffective Mathis at the 10:07 mark of the second quarter. The Bulldogs trailed 7-2 at the time.

By the time Bennett came out so Mathis could get a few more snaps in the fourth quarter, Georgia led 34-10. In between, Bennett completed 20 of 29 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 20 yards on five rushing attempts, which doesn’t include a nifty pylon-dive for a 2-point conversion to extend Georgia’s first lead of the day in the third quarter.

By any measure, Bennett played great. His pass efficiency rating of 152.8 and quarterback rating of 98.6 were among the best in college football recorded on Saturday. Pro Football Focus gave Bennett a grade of 88.9 percent, which tied Florida’s Kyle Trask for fifth-best in the nation.

There were a few hiccups. Bennett’s first two drives stalled, he missed a couple of open receivers and made some incorrect checks. But once got into the flow of the game, it was a mostly a spot-on performance.

“I thought Stetson did a good job when he came in," Smart said Monday. “He has played a lot of football. He had good composure, he handled the pocket well, he handled the protections well. Stetson has seen a lot of football in his time. The stuff he sees from our defense day-in and day-out and taking reps last year (helped him be) very calm and poised.”

Said Bennett: “The first half was pretty poor. The second half was better. A few times I checked a protection that I shouldn’t have. On that 2-point conversion, it worked out but maybe it won’t next time. So, there are things like that that I’ve got to fix.”

We’ll find out this week whether Bennett will get that opportunity. Smart said the competition will be decided in practice with all four quarterbacks starting at square one.

“All I can tell you is we’re going to continue to work with all the guys," Smart said. “We’ve got to put the best guy in there to give us the best opportunity to win the football game.”

You can guess who Bennett III thinks that is. But, of course, he has watched this play unfold from a father’s perspective.

Bennett’s parents are both UGA alums and longtime season-ticket holders. And so their oldest of four children grew up making the 228-mile, 4-hour drive up U.S. 1 from Blackshear to Athens to watch the Bulldogs play on fall Saturdays. He grew up a fan, and David Pollack remains his all-time favorite player.

It turns out, Bennett IV developed into a pretty good ball player himself. As a senior at Pierce County High, he passed for more than 3,700 yards, rushed for another 500 and was responsible for 40 touchdowns. One of his team’s biggest rivals was Richard LeCounte’s Liberty County team.

“Me and Stetson grew up playing ball against each other, so I’ve seen him throw the ball around and sling it a lot,” said LeCounte, the Bulldogs' senior safety. “I’m a big fan of his.”

Saturday, Bennett had a lot of fans on the Georgia sideline. He was mobbed when he came off the field after his 19-yard TD pass to George Pickens and pylon-tapping dive for a 2-point conversion staked the Bulldogs to their first lead, 13-10, with 6:00 remaining in the third quarter. By the time he led Georgia on its third touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, Bennett was bobbing his head in time with the music and having a good ol' time dancing alongside his teammates.

That’s a memory that Bennett and his father can savor for life. But how much will that factor into the starting quarterback decision this week?

Nobody but Smart and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken can be sure. Monken worked last year with Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is similar in physical stature to Georgia’s Bennett.

Monken’s arrival has been a breath of fresh air to Bennett.

“I’ve loved having him; he’s been awesome," Bennett said. “He’s spent several years in the league, and he’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s a stickler about details, which can be annoying at times. But that’s what it takes to be successful in this league.”

Bennett’s fit in Monken’s system is one of two things his father thinks should favor him winning the job. The other is Bennett IV’s love for UGA.

“I know this: There is not a soul in the quarterbacks' room who has a heart for Georgia like Stetson does,” his father said. “There is no one that will prepare more, no one that will be more ready.

"Most people come to Georgia as a steppingstone to the NFL. Well this is his NFL. This moment is why he walked on rather than taking one those 20 scholarship offers he had. He wants to help Georgia win, he wants lead Georgia to a national championship.”

Bennett III said that’s what people like that Georgia fan in Fayetteville are missing about his son. He said they’re measuring the wrong attributes.

“Everybody in the Bulldog Nation has been worried about where the top of his head ends above the ground,” Bennett III said. “But they can’t see how big his heart is for Georgia. That goes from end zone in the end zone. Stet wants to do this for Georgia.”