The curious case of Kirby Smart and his quarterbacks

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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112021 Athens: Georgia quarterbacks JT Daniels and Stetson Bennett confer on the sidelines during the first half against Charleston Southern in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The belief remains that, regarding his quarterbacks, Kirby Smart knows exactly what he’s doing. He could, however, be the only one.

During Georgia’s latest loss to Alabama, yours truly said aloud: “I think Daniels is coming in.” My conclusion came on the strength of three observations:

1. JT Daniels was warming up, though he wasn’t wearing his helmet. (In hindsight, this should have told me something.)

2. Stetson Bennett was standing apart from Georgia’s sideline huddle. Every few seconds, a teammate would walk over to him. One patted him on the shoulder. Another gave him a hug.

3. Georgia trailed 38-17, Bama’s latest points having come on the return of a Bennett interception.

Surely this was the moment Smart, who coaches Georgia, awaited. Bennett had thrown two interceptions. Unless something changed, the Bulldogs were headed toward a loss. They needed to start slinging it every down. It’s generally believed that Daniels, who opened the season as their No. 1 quarterback, is Bennett’s superior as a slinger.

To my surprise, Bennett trotted back on the field. He led Georgia to a touchdown that made the score 38-24. Daniels didn’t play Saturday. Bennett threw 48 passes, a career high. Since starting against Vanderbilt on Sept. 25 – and being lifted after the first quarter of a game the Bulldogs won 62-0 – Daniels has thrown 23 passes. Those came in mop-up duty in games Georgia won by an aggregate 99-13.

Said Smart on Saturday: “I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson. I have a lot of confidence in JT, too.”

Daniels started against Clemson in the season opener. He missed the Alabama-Birmingham game with a tweaked oblique. He started against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. He was diagnosed with a lat injury. He hasn’t started since. Against UAB, Bennett threw four touchdown passes – remember, the Bulldogs hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown against Clemson – in the first 16 minutes. Watching, most of us figured that would be the final start of his extraordinary career. Not for the first time, we were wrong about Stetson Fleming Bennett IV.

Daniels started Georgia’s final four games last season. He entered 2021 being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, though technically every college player enters every season as a Heisman candidate. The Bulldogs are 7-0 with him starting, though he’s no longer starting. Smart said Sunday there was no discussion about changing quarterbacks against Alabama, which is ludicrous. You’re down by 21. Your quarterback just threw a pick-6. How could someone with a headset not say, “Should we give JT a series?”

Smart is, ahem, a smart guy. He leaves little to chance. There must be a reason Smart he stuck with Bennett as a starter this season, though he didn’t stick with Bennett as a starter last year. “Nobody has done more for the University of Georgia than Stetson Bennett,” Smart said after the UAB game. Just because we can’t grasp the rationale doesn’t mean no rationale exists, which leads Mr. Sportswriter to offer a few theories:

Smart is saving Daniels for the College Football Playoff. This is possible – anything’s possible – but it would be without precedent. Ohio State didn’t wind up playing third-stringer Cardale Jones in the first CFP because Urban Meyer saved him for the moment. Jones played because Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett were hurt. Also: It’s not as if nobody has seen Daniels on tape. He has those seven Georgia starts. He also had a season at USC, which isn’t a low-profile program.

Smart’s ego is such that he wants to win the national title his way – with a caretaker quarterback, power running and mighty defense. We all have egos. But I can’t imagine any coach so solipsistic as to believe losing with a quarterback of your liking would be preferable to winning. To borrow from Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos: Flags fly forever. When a coach wins a championship, he moves up in class. Mark Richt’s inability to take that final step is why Smart is coaching Georgia.

Smart isn’t willing to bend with the times. Bennett threw 48 passes against Alabama, so we can’t say that Georgia’s coach is Woody Hayes reincarnate. You don’t sign George Pickens and Brock Bowers to deploy them as mere decoys. Nick Saban, Smart’s mentor, has all but given up trying to run the ball. Smart isn’t apt to abandon the run, but he’s not opposed to letting his quarterback throw. Can’t play two quarterbacks at the same time, though.

Smart was so irked by the criticism for sticking with Jake Fromm over Justin Fields that he’d rather lose with his guy than win with the people’s choice. Wait a second. Against Clemson in Charlotte, wasn’t Daniels Smart’s guy? Bennett had fallen below Carson Beck in practice reps. Besides, Fromm/Fields was all but unmanageable: proven incumbent vs. gifted freshman. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t start above Jalen Hurts as a Bama freshman, did he?

Smart wants Daniels to be his Tua. Georgia lost two championship games over 11 months to a Bama backup – the CFP final when Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith and the SEC title tilt when Hurts engineered the tying and winning touchdowns. Nobody else in the playoffs has a reserve quarterback on Daniels’ level. So why Smart didn’t avail himself of that option Saturday? Was he afraid if Daniels saved the day, he’d have to start from then on? Is any coach averse to winning?

Smart truly believes Bennett to be the better quarterback for what Georgia is. Public sentiment holds otherwise, but don’t we have to credit the coach for knowing his players? Bennett can make plays without throwing, which makes this the reverse of Fromm/Fields. Oh, and Bennett ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency, one spot ahead of Alabama’s Bryce Young.

The answer might be some of the above. It might be none of the above. Professionally, I’d like to see Georgia win two more games with Bennett as the quarterback. We pros don’t root for teams, but we do root for stories. The Bulldogs breaking a 41-year drought with a former walk-on as quarterback – that’s a story that writes itself.

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