With chapters still to write, the ‘Legend of Stetson Bennett’ must be appreciated

ATHENS – Jake Fromm sat by himself in a hotel room in East Rutherford, N.J. He’d just completed his exit interview with the New York Giants. As most are aware now, that didn’t go particularly well.

Seven hundred thirty miles to the east in Indianapolis, confetti was falling on the Georgia Bulldogs. They had clinched the program’s first national championship in 41 years. That was Jan. 10.

“I was getting on a plane the next morning and heading home. So, I’m sitting there by myself watching the game, all excited,” Fromm said from Ashburn, Va., where he is a third-string quarterback for the Washington Commanders. “I was high-fiving all my imaginary buddies. I was texting and calling a few guys back and forth during the game. Just trying to enjoy as best I could. Wishing I could hug somebody.”

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At Lucas Oil Stadium, Stetson Bennett was setting a record for hugs received per minute. The former walk-on quarterback had just seen a lifelong dream become reality. Only, this reality went well beyond his dreams.

A son of UGA alums who grew up in Blackshear, Bennett dreamed of one day playing quarterback for his beloved Bulldogs. The possibility of not only playing in the national championship game, but actually leading his team to victory, such an aspiration was too grandiose even to imagine inside of the head of a South Georgia teenager.

Yet there Bennett was in real life, kissing the national championship trophy on a scaffolded stage and embracing Kirby Smart, other coaches, teammate after teammate and fan after fan.

“It’s tough to put into words,” Bennett would say afterward. “You feel like you don’t deserve all this attention; You just won a football game. But it is special.”

And Bennett is still living that dream. The Bulldogs (11-0, 8-0 SEC) still haven’t lost since that fateful day in Indy. They enter Saturday’s final home game of the regular season at Sanford Stadium as 35½-point favorites over Georgia Tech (5-6, 4-4).

Accordingly, it will be Senior Day. So, for the second consecutive year, Bennett will participate. Now a 25-year-old, sixth-year senior, this definitely will be Bennett’s last season as a Bulldog.

But Bennett’s dream lives on. As unfathomable as it might seem, everything remains in play both for him and the Bulldogs. As the consensus No. 1-ranked team, a date with No. 5 LSU awaits Georgia in the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 3. Win that, and the Bulldogs are the odds-on favorite to become the first repeat national champions in college football since Alabama did it in 2012.

They’ll be the first to do it with a walk-on quarterback.

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That’s what makes the Bennett story borderline unbelievable. Walk-ons just don’t get these opportunities in modern-day college football.

Typically, a team has four quarterbacks on scholarship on their roster, as Georgia does now. It has walk-ons, too, but rarely do they even dress out for games, much less get to play in them.

In practice, they’re fighting for scraps. Their primary purpose is to throw passes to warm up receivers and to give the No. 1 defense looks in drills and in scout-team work. This was the scenario for Bennett when he showed up in 2017.

“It’s hard to get on a coach’s radar when you don’t have an opportunity to practice,” said Aaron Murray, who was a highly recruited quarterback when he signed with Georgia in 2009. “You get to warm up, then watch the 1s and 2s and 3s go out there and do their thing. So, you have to make the most of every little opportunity.”

Generally, all the quarterbacks are comrades-in-arms, so to speak. They like each other, hang out with each other and often room with each other. Bennett said he remains friends with the walk-ons who played with him, Greg Bingham and Parker Welch.

But when it comes to the opportunity to be under center on the field with the team, that’s fiercely competitive. And there are zero politics involved.

There is little in life more coldly antiseptic and objectively analytical than choosing a starting quarterback in Power-5 football. That might go double for an SEC program bent on competing for championships.

Murray, for instance, roomed with Zach Mettenberger. Both of them were high 4-star prospects vying to become Georgia’s starting quarterback.

“It’s a grind,” Murray said. “‘Mett was my roommate, so obviously you have a friendship with those guys. But competition is part of the game. We’ve all had to compete our whole lives, whatever the sport is. So, you know, that’s the difficult part of being a quarterback -- there can only be one out there. Everybody else is rotating.”

That was the scenario that awaited Bennett when this 5-foot-11, 175-pound quarterback out Pierce County High showed up as a “preferred walk-on” in 2017. Credit former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim Chaney for giving Bennett that chance.

When Bennett stepped into Georgia’s quarterback room for the first time, he found Jacob Eason, Brice Ramsey and Fromm – all of them considered 5-star recruits by somebody – already sitting there. Along with another esteemed walk-on named Sam Vaughn, the competitive climb before Bennett had to seem mountainous at the time.

“You’re not given the benefit of the doubt,” Smart said this week of a walk-on’s path. “You know you have to earn it. You have to beat guys out. And, you know, we as coaches did everything we could to not give him the opportunity. He just kept banging away at the door, and he was very persistent.”

That’s why these things don’t happen very often. Walk-ons rarely, if ever, become starting quarterbacks, never mind throwing clutch touchdown passes and leading a team to a national championship.

Baker Mayfield has come the closest to living Bennett’s dream. He never won a national championship, but he walked on at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy and became the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NFL draft.

It was in the lead-up to Georgia’s Rose Bowl matchup against Mayfield and Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff for the 2017 season where Bennett’s ascension picked up its pace. Needing a mobile quarterback with a strong arm to emulate Mayfield and the Sooners’ offense in practice, Bennett was appointed for the task by defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Asked during Rose Bowl preparations in Los Angeles how well Georgia’s defense was progressing in practice, Tucker lamented, “not great.”

“Stetson Bennett is a beast, man,” Tucker said. “Stetson Bennett puts a lot of pressure on our defense because he is extremely quick, he’s fast and he can throw. He can throw in the pocket, and he can throw on the run. And he’s very, very competitive. So, he does a great job of giving us a look, and it challenges our players. I’m glad we have him.”

Fromm had recognized Bennett’s unique talents even before that. For two of Fromm’s three seasons as Georgia’s starting quarterback, Bennett was his understudy. Though, in 2017, you really couldn’t even call Bennett that. He was not getting any reps with the first two units.

But even then, Fromm said he could tell they were looking at somebody special.

“What he’s able to do was always there,” Fromm said. “You could see it. I remember practicing and seeing some crazy play that Stetson was making back there against the defense. I mean, the Legend of Stetson was always there. Obviously, it just grew and grew as he did the scout-team stuff for the Rose Bowl, playing Baker Mayfield. He always had the ability. It was just later in his career that he got a little more of an opportunity.”

Fromm darn sure didn’t want to give it to him. He was busy fighting to keep every rep for himself with first-string offense. Never mind the little South Georgia guy wearing the No. 22 jersey, Fromm was busy staving off Eason, Ramsey and every other contender the Bulldogs recruited to replace him. Eventually, that would include Justin Fields, too.

And stave them off Fromm did. That lack of opportunity ultimately chased Bennett away to a junior college where he could get some meaningful, competitive snaps.

Bennett found that at tiny Jones College in Ellisville, Miss. He started all 12 games there, throwing for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns and running for four more scores.

That earned Bennett a scholarship offer from coach Billy Napier and Louisiana-Lafayette. Bennett was prepared to accept it in December 2018, until Smart came forward with an 11th-hour offer to rejoin the Bulldogs, but this time on scholarship.

Fromm, of course, was still there.

Credit: Steven Colquitt/UGA Athletics

Credit: Steven Colquitt/UGA Athletics

“Obviously, me and Stet are both competitive people. But, no, I never really felt threatened by Stet,” Fromm said. “That was my football team and my job, and we were ready to roll. … So I was, like, ‘welcome back. Glad to have you back where you belong. Now let’s have some fun and go ball out.’”

It was better for Bennett this time. Georgia also signed a 4-star quarterback out of Michigan named D’Wan Mathis. But with Fields transferring to Ohio State and walk-on John Seter being the only other player on the roster with any experience in the system, Bennett felt confident about his chances of getting on the field some.

He did, appearing in five games and completing 20 of 27 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns. Bennett even got on the field against LSU in the 2019 SEC Championship game when Fromm had to come out after getting his leg nearly bent in half. Today, Bennett laughs at the ugly floater under heavy pressure that nearly was picked off on his one third-down play.

Nobody’s laughing at what Bennett is doing on the field anymore. Truly, he has been doing some wondrous things.

Sure, coaches and fans sometimes wince at the occasional “uh-ohs” that Bennett unleashes. His seven interceptions through 11 games this season match the number he threw in 15 games all last season. And with 14 TD passes so far, he has less than half of the 29 he threw during Georgia’s championship campaign last season.

But those aren’t the numbers that people should peruse. Uncountable, Smart contends, are the number of times that Bennett has gotten the Bulldogs out of a bad play and into a good one with audibles at the line of scrimmage. He has proved more mobile than ever, averaging 4.7 yards per run and getting sacked only seven times all season, and none in the past four games.

But the numbers that truly excite Bennett’s coaches and teammates are 25-3. That’s Georgia’s record in games in which Bennett has been the starting quarterback. You could take that up to 26-3 as the “QB of record” as he came off the bench in the first quarter to save the Bulldogs against Arkansas to open the 2020 season.

There are a bunch of SEC quarterbacks who are going to hear their names called before Bennett in the NFL draft in April – if Bennett gets to hear his name at all – but only Alabama’s Bryce Young can offer a similar worksheet.

“You know, it’s funny. Stetson has a chance to win two national championships, but then I hear everybody say, ‘after that, his career is done.’ He’s going to go be a lawyer, or whatever. That’s what everybody is thinking,” Murray said. “I’m not so sure about that. I think Stetson can get drafted. He has great mobility, he has leadership, he has plenty of arm strength, he’s got swagger. The only thing he doesn’t have is size.

“I’m not saying he’s going to be an NFL starter, but he should be able to earn a spot on a roster.”

Lead Georgia to a second national championship, and NFL executives would be passing over Bennett at their own risks. But neither Bennett nor the Bulldogs are thinking about any of that at the moment.

Just get by Tech on Saturday, and Bennett will have overseen the Georgia offense for the only back-to-back, undefeated regular seasons in school history. Get past LSU the following Saturday, and he would join Fromm, D.J. Shockley and David Greene as the only quarterbacks this century to lead the Bulldogs to an SEC championship.

Get through the College Football Playoff unscathed this season, and he’ll join Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier as the past two quarterbacks to lead their teams to back-to-back national titles.

Credit: Richard Hamm

Credit: Richard Hamm

Just the fact that Bennett can claim one of those as a one-time walk-on quarterback is astronomically rare. His old buddy Fromm recognizes that better than anybody.

In some ways, that was Fromm’s dream that Bennett was living out before the world in January. But at least somebody was doing it. And while Fromm’s reality at the time was sitting by himself in a New Jersey hotel room, nobody else in the world understood better the nearly impossible journey that Bennett had taken to be up on that stage that night in Indy.

Fromm texted his old Georgia buddy a congratulatory message that night. He still hasn’t heard back.

“First off, let’s clear the air on that: Stetson is, by far, the worst texter I’ve ever met in my entire life; I’m talking about worst texter in the world,” Fromm said with a laugh. “But I’ve actually been around the (UGA) facility a lot, in and out, while I was staying in football shape for this fall. So, me and Stet got to talk a lot, especially at the beginning of the year. We’d just talk ball, the dynamics of the team, leadership, all sorts of things. Me and Stet have an awesome relationship.”

Fromm would like to be in Athens for Bennett’s last game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, but he won’t. He’ll be in Washington with the Commanders, who play host to the Falcons on Sunday. As a practice-squad player, Fromm still is hanging onto his NFL dream by a thread.

But he already has made a home in Athens with his wife, Caroline, and he can’t wait to see what’s next for his former understudy.

Knowing Bennett’s poor texting habits, Fromm sent his latest message to his old friend through a third-party correspondent:

“Just soak it up and enjoy it, Stet,” Fromm said. “Being the quarterback at the University of Georgia is just an amazing honor and privilege. So, man, just be sure to take some time to embrace it and enjoy it with your teammates.”