How QB Stetson Bennett won the start for Georgia

Credit: UGA

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett comments on his performance against UAB and when he was declared the starter.

Credit: UGA

ATHENS — It was fascinating to hear Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and coach Kirby Smart rehash how Bennett ended starting for the Bulldogs Saturday against UAB.

It went pretty well for Bennett. You might have heard.

Georgia 56, UAB 7

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound fifth-year senior from Blackshear completed his first seven passes of the game, five of which went for touchdowns that averaged 48.8 yards apiece. When he finally threw an incompletion — it was an intentional overthrow out of the back of the end zone — it dropped Bennett’s QB rating from 775.6 into the 500s. On the next play, Bennett threw a strike to tight end Brock Bowers for a 9-yard touchdown with 1:13 remaining in the first half. That took Bennett’s QB rating back to .566 and gave Georgia a 35-0 lead.

“It’s crazy. I don’t ever think I’ve seen a stat like that,” senior tackle Jamaree Salyer said of Bennett’s scintillating start. “I’ll be glad to say 20 years later that I watched him do that.”

ExploreMark Bradley: Stetson Bennett delivers again

So, clearly starting Bennett was the right call for the Bulldogs. But he was playing only because regular starter JT Daniels couldn’t play due to an upper-body injury. Bennett earned the nod over redshirt freshman Carson Beck based on their respective performances in practice this week. The plan was for them to alternate on a two-plays-to-one rotation. But Bennett’s long aerials eventually laid waste to that script.

Bennett learned Wednesday night that his coach was thinking about going with him. On Thursday morning, coach Kirby Smart made it official when he met with both Bennett and Beck.

“I didn’t have that many conversations with Stetson,” coach Kirby Smart said. “I sent him a text Wednesday saying, ‘are you preparing like you’re the guy?’ I said ‘are you working that way?’ ... And he just said, ‘I’m preparing like I’m going to be the guy.’ ... I told both Carson and Stetson when I met with them on Thursday, ‘I have complete confidence in both of you.’ ”

Said Bennett: “Honestly, I prepared like we were playing Clemson, just like I did last week. You know, every game that I’ve started and every game since I’ve been here I just prepared the same way.”

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett rolls out to pass against UAB during the first quarter Saturday, Sept 11, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett rolls out to pass against UAB during the first quarter Saturday, Sept 11, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett rolls out to pass against UAB during the first quarter Saturday, Sept 11, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia’s quarterback situation is considerably better than it was a year ago. It was determined midweek that Daniels, the Bulldogs’ starter for the last five games, would be unable to play due to an oblique strain. All summer, and twice this week, Smart had identified the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Beck as Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback. Meanwhile, he said that Bennett was mostly taking “mental reps.”

But it was hard to ignore Bennett’s edge in experience. He started five games last season after redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis proved ineffective in the season opener against Arkansas. Conversely, Beck had appeared in just one game with the Bulldogs. He did not attempt any passes when he came in for Georgia’s final offensive series of a 49-7 win over Missouri in what proved to be the 2020 regular-season finale.

“We just have a lot of young players that we’re trying to grow up,” Smart said. “We thought (Bennett) would give us a calming effect to have him in, his experience, his ability to play in games.”

The primary objective coming into the week was to be more explosive on offense. Like, a lot more.

The Bulldogs did not score an offensive touchdown or record a play of more than 22 yards in their 10-3 win over then-No. 3 Clemson in the season opener. While Georgia’s defense carried the day the previous weekend, the Bulldogs can’t expect the same every week.

“We went into the week where we just wanted to be explosive,” Bennett said. “You saw, we didn’t score many points (against Clemson). So, we knew going into this game we were going to try to be explosive and I think everybody prepared. All the receivers were fired up, especially when it starts coming to fruition and we started completing those balls.”

Bennett’s first completion went to flanker Jermaine Burton for a 73-yard touchdown. His second and third went for 12 yards apiece, the latter for a TD. His fourth went about 20 yards in the air, but tight end Brock Bowers took it 89 yards down the sideline for another score. His fifth went over the middle to Arian Smith for a 61-yard TD. After a 22-yard completion to Bowers was nullified by penalty, Bennett threw a tiny little five-yarder to tight end John FitzPatrick for a sixth straight completion. He wouldn’t attempt a pass again until the final minutes of the second quarter. That’s when he hit Bowers for a record fifth TD in the first half. That sent Bennett to the locker room 7-for-8 for 260 yards.

Credit: UGA

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Georgia football coach Kirby Smart discusses the decision to start Stetson Bennett with injury to quarterback JT Daniels.

Credit: UGA

Smart said it was more function than it was design.

“(UAB) gave us the ability to stretch the field,” he said. “They played quarters, the same that Clemson played. But they bit on the run. They came up on the run and Jermaine ran by the safety that was playing quarters on the second play. So it wasn’t a matter of stretching the field or not wanting to stretch field, it was what the defense did.”

Bennett never really tried to go deep in his only series in the third quarter. He missed Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint on a short post over the middle and then hit Burton for 15 yards and a first down. Except for a 4-yard toss to Burton, the rest was all running, including a 20-yard scramble by Bennett. The Bulldogs would go ahead 42-0 on a 14-yard James Cook rush.

Beck took all the remaining the snaps except for the last few. Those went to freshman Brock Vandagriff.

As for who might start when South Carolina visits next week, Smart says even he will have to wait to see how that turns out.

“It’s a day-to-day evaluation,” Smart said. “It depends on JT’s injury, it depends on how they practice during the week. We thought Stetson practiced really well this week and that was the reason we decided to go with him. So, it’s day-to-day. We’re not going to get into hypotheticals.”

The one thing the Bulldogs are sure of is to not count out Bennett.

“He didn’t get a lot of reps before this week,” Salyer said of Bennett. “To see him step into that light again and play like that was special. When Stetson needs to show up, he always does.”

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