UGA with too many quarterbacks? There’s no such thing

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

Here's a quick look at JT Daniels' stats during his brief time as Georgia's starting quarterback.

Credit: Leo Willingham/AJC

A photo exists of three Alabama quarterbacks during warm-ups for the national championship game of Jan. 8, 2018. Jalen Hurts would start that night against Georgia; he started in the loss to Clemson the year before. Freshman Tua Tagovailoa relieved Hurts at halftime with the Bulldogs leading 13-0 and threw the winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime. Tagovailoa would start the 2019 title tilt, another loss to Clemson. The third guy in the photo is Mac Jones, who would start the 2021 final against Ohio State and lead Bama to victory.

One photo, three quarterbacks, four starts over five national championship games, two national titles. All three became Heisman Trophy finalists. Tagovailoa finished second to Kyler Murray in 2018. Hurts, then at Oklahoma, ran second to Joe Burrow in 2019; Jones was third behind Smith this past season.

This won’t be news to anyone who follows the sport, but the way of college football is for big-name quarterbacks to cluster, then scatter. Georgia’s starter that famous night in 2018 was Jake Fromm, a freshman who was promoted because Jacob Eason was injured on the third series of the Bulldogs’ opener. Eason would leave for Washington after that season. Fromm’s backup in 2018 would be Justin Fields, who left for Ohio State after a year and would finish third in the 2019 Heisman voting behind Burrow and Hurts.

Fromm, who’d been very good as a freshman and excellent as a sophomore, had a much lesser 2019 season, leaving many if not most to suggest that Kirby Smart had erred in picking Fromm over Fields. Fromm, surprising some if not all, left for the NFL with a season’s eligibility remaining; he was picked by Buffalo in Round 5 and served as the Bills’ “quarantine quarterback” this season. Fields is expected to be drafted among the top five come April.

Fromm’s departure left the Bulldogs in sudden need of a quarterback. They attracted two transfers — Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and JT Daniels from USC. Because of COVID-19 concerns, Newman opted out just after Labor Day. Georgia’s Game 1 starter was D’Wan Mathis, who was replaced before halftime by Stetson Bennett, who was in turn replaced by JT Daniels after the Bulldogs lost to Florida. Daniels presided over four consecutive victories, the latest being the rousing comeback against Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Mathis transferred to Temple. Daniels, who could have exited for the NFL, opted to stay. He’s listed among the early favorites for the 2021 Heisman. But wait. In December, Georgia landed the heralded Brock Vandagriff of Prince Avenue Christian — that was Signing Day 1; Wednesday was Signing Day 2 — which means Daniels will face blue-chip competition. Now wait again. Last week, Gunner Stockton of Rabun County, among the top quarterbacks in the class of 2022, stated his intention to sign with Georgia.

So now we’re asking: Is the program that, not so long ago, seemed to have no quarterbacks about to have too many? And given the Fromm/Fields example, is there any assurance Smart will handle them, er, smartly? We can’t yet answer the latter question. As for the former: There’s no such thing as having too many quarterbacks, seeing as how QBs view a college career not as a four-year (or even a three-year) commitment. The only increment is one year, meaning this year.

Daniels, who’ll be a fourth-year junior, surely will leave Georgia after next season for the NFL. If Vandagriff doesn’t win the job this fall, he’ll have every expectation of becoming No. 1 in 2022. Stockton’s commitment is fascinating, but it’s not binding. He can’t yet sign a letter of intent, and he previously committed to South Carolina. Vandagriff, FYI, signed with Georgia after decommitting — that’s a word coined just for recruiting — from Oklahoma.

The point being: On the college football spectrum, 2022 is light years away. With the NCAA allowing almost every transfer to become immediately eligible elsewhere, the quarterback waiver wire crackles as never before. Burrow spent two years at Ohio State as Dwayne Haskins’ backup; two years later, he left LSU after authoring the greatest season by any collegiate quarterback ever. Food for thought: Had Burrow stayed in Columbus, there mightn’t have been room for Fields.

Kelly Bryant lost his starting job at Clemson to Trevor Lawrence; the next year, Bryant was starting for Missouri. Feleipe Franks was injured in 2019 and lost his starting job at Florida to Kyle Trask; last year, Franks started for Arkansas. Chase Brice of Grayson spent two years as the understudy for Lawrence at Clemson; last year, Brice started for Duke. Jake Coker was Jameis Winston’s backup on Florida State’s 2013 championship team; two years later, Coker was the starter on Alabama’s championship team.

Let’s not get hung up on hype. Hurts was a 4-star recruit who didn’t start Game 1 as an Alabama freshman. Blake Barnett, a 5-star, did. Hurts replaced him that day and would have one the most distinguished careers — making the playoffs four years running, three times as a starter — in college annals. (Barnett wound up at South Florida, with two stops in between.) Jones was a 3-star who committed first to Kentucky; he led Alabama to an undefeated season, something not even Hurts or Tagovailoa did. Trask was a 3-star who never started a high school game; he finished fourth in the 2020 Heisman voting.

As much fun as it is to juggle names — Daniels and Vandagriff and Stockton, oh my! — there’s no way to know how the landscape for college quarterbacks will look seven months from now, let alone in two or three years. Guys get hurt. Guys get their feelings hurt. Big names don’t always play big. Nobody in this world would have guessed the quarterback who would throw the most passes for Georgia last season would be — not Newman, not Mathis, not Daniels — but Stetson Bennett, once a walk-on. It happened, though. Life’s weird.

PULLQUOTE:

There’s no such thing as having too many quarterbacks, seeing as how QBs view a college career not as a four-year (or even a three-year) commitment. The only increment is one year, meaning this year.

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