The Rams are the right employer because just as Georgia coach Kirby Smart believed in Bennett, so does this franchise. The Rams fell in love with Bennett during their evaluations, identifying the same qualities that ignited his ascension in Athens.
They were quiet about it, hoping to avoid another team leapfrogging them during the draft’s middle rounds to take Bennett. The Rams drafted him in the fourth round (No. 128), earlier than some analysts expected entering April’s draft.
“I was just letting everything happen,” Bennett told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during a conversation Thursday. “I figured out early on that I had no clue what was going to happen. I never even talked to the Rams directly. Didn’t take a visit out here, didn’t meet with them at the combine. You hear all these stories … but I didn’t know anything. You didn’t want to get excited about one team or another. So it was a blank slate.
“I didn’t know when, where or if I was going to get picked, so I just let it all come to me.”
Bennett has made a positive impression in camp, earning compliments from coach Sean McVay, who has described Bennett as “steady.” As was the case in Athens, Bennett has been accountable for his play and unfazed during bad sequences. Georgia fans know that trait well.
This time, Bennett’s biggest competition isn’t Alabama or Ohio State. It’s former Boise State signal-caller Brett Rypien, against whom he’s competing for the No. 2 quarterback job. The two were set to play most of the snaps in Saturday night’s exhibition opener against the Chargers.
Regardless of the immediate future, the team has invested in Bennett, hoping he’s a reliable backup with the potential to become something more.
After all, Bennett’s football life revolves around surpassing expectations. Rams safety Richard LeCounte III, the first recruit to commit in the Smart era, competed against Bennett in high school. Bennett was a three-star recruit, largely unnoticed while quarterbacking Pierce County in South Georgia.
But LeCounte saw an exceptional player and urged Smart to take the relative unknown. Bennett’s father, Stetson Bennett III, enjoys sharing that story. It’s a unique one because it involves someone already knowing what the country would learn years later.
“That’s my boy,” LeCounte told the AJC. “I’ve known what he can do. When we were in high school playing together, I’d seen what a special talent he was. He worked hard, and he was so smart. And now look. Now he’s here, and I’m so proud of him. I’m so happy and rejoiceful. When I can see his family come out here and just smile like mine, that’s something. Just knowing where we came from and everything we had to go through to be where we are today.”
Georgia fans likely can recite Bennett’s story as if he’s their own family member. He walked on in 2017 at the school that meant so much to him and his parents. He was the scout-team Baker Mayfield for the Rose Bowl that first season. He left Athens and returned. He’d been benched; “I was not good enough,” he once said, reminding folks again that self-awareness is a strong suit.
Bennett took over the starting job from transfer JT Daniels, once a five-star recruit, during the 2021 season. Then he managed to keep it, even as fans expressed skepticism that he could push the tormented program where it so desperately desired to go.
Fans remember Bennett struggling against Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship game. Smart stuck by him, and Bennett threw all over Michigan in the national semifinals and made timely throws late in the championship game, when Georgia got revenge against Alabama and won its first title in four decades.
Bennett entered the 2022 season without any threat of losing his job. He responded with marvelous play, finishing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. His Bulldogs went 15-0, completing their season – and Bennett’s career – at the venue he’ll now call home.
“It’s crazy because I told him, ‘You might be back out here’ after the natty,” said Rams cornerback Derion Kendrick, who played for Georgia in 2021. “Just to see him go from nobody believing in him to ‘Can he do it a second time?’ and (stuff) like that. Just seeing him go about it and working without worrying about the outside noise. Knowing what he came from, being at JUCO, being a walk-on. He always had the hardest way and he’s come out on top.”
And so ended Bennett’s lengthy college tenure. He finished 29-3, including losing only one game over Georgia’s two championship seasons. It’s among the more memorable stories in the sport’s history, one that always will be cited as a reason for unheralded players to persevere.
But is there anything Bennett would change about it?
“No, I’m pretty proud of it,” he said. “I think I did it my way. Then I think I changed what ‘my way’ was whenever it needed to be changed. You’re never there, even when you think you are, so you always have to adapt or die. But you have to believe in those strengths you do have that are innate. That are given to you. You have to bolster those, then improve on your weaknesses. I think I always try to do that.
“Sometimes I’ve gotten in my own way. Sometimes I didn’t always do things the right way. Nobody would be more mad at myself than me. Nobody would be more upset than I was. But you grow up along the way. You learn things. (I think I’m better off) because things happened the exact way they happened.”
On to the NFL draft process, which – speaking of getting in his own way – didn’t begin smoothly.
Bennett didn’t participate in the East-West Shrine game or the Senior Bowl (which prompted criticism from event director Jim Nagy). During Senior Bowl week in January, Bennett was arrested in Dallas for public intoxication. He addressed the incident during meetings with teams and spoke publicly about it at the NFL scouting combine.
“I realized the spotlight I was going to be under from it, I’d say,” Bennett told the AJC on Thursday. “I always knew better than to do stuff like that. I was the starting quarterback for Georgia for two-and-a-quarter years. The spotlight is still on you, and you have to do things the right way. You can’t ever let the team down.
“And I think once I got away from that umbrella of Georgia, you’re trying to find yourself and you don’t really know. You’re kind of all over the place. That let me know that no matter what, no matter where you are, somebody is going to be watching, and you have to do right all the time.”
The incident further muddied Bennett’s polarizing draft stock. He’s small, listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, and lacks physical traits that stand out. He also was 25 years old as a sixth-year senior. It was clear that he likely would be a Day 3 draftee.
During his first comments after selecting Bennett, Snead said: “(Watching Bennett’s film) you came away thinking, ‘Wow. He was a weapon for Georgia.” McVay added that Bennett’s underdog story sometimes created misconceptions about the football player he’d become.
Their words weren’t typical for a mid-round selection. The Rams aren’t counting on Bennett being a long-term answer – hence taking him in the fourth round – but that isn’t to say it’s impossible. Stafford is 35 years old and dealt with multiple injuries. The reality is Bennett might have an opportunity sooner than even the Rams would like.
“No doubt (Bennett can be an NFL starter),” LeCounte said. “I don’t see why not. The mental capacity, he’s mature and he’s a grown man. I think he’s ready for it. He can do whatever he puts his mind to. Hopefully soon, whenever he gets that chance, he’ll be able to play.
“But I think it’s also important that he’s gotten to learn a lot from Matt. Being with him, I can see it every day. The leader, vocal leader that Matt is all-around. As a quarterback, you want to be someone following in his footsteps. I’m happy as a friend for him to be over here getting good coaching and learning about how his position works. He’s definitely, as we can see, worth the pick.”
Will he be worth more than a fourth-rounder? NFL starters don’t often come from Day 3 picks, and there won’t be any pressure on Bennett to become an exception, especially with Stafford ahead of him.
But bet against him? Good luck. When the present suggests disregarding Bennett, the future usually makes that look foolish.
“At Georgia, it was always, ‘It’s nothing personal. It’s who’s the best (that will play),’” Bennett said. “Who’s the best player for the team? Because out there, it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is. It doesn’t matter who the receiver is. It’s who’s best for the team.
“Just keep getting better and eventually something good is going to happen. You don’t know when. It’s not your call. It’s the coach’s call, all that stuff. So keep getting better and keep being patient.”