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Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason walks off the field after not playing against Auburn in the regular-season game at Jordan-Hare this season.

Can’t really begrudge these 2 Bulldogs for their decisions to leave

Chip Towers

ATHENS – Well, there goes Jacob Eason, headed back West, we assume. And there goes Trent Thompson, headed for the NFL.

And just like that, the top players in Georgia’s classes of 2015 and 2016 are gone.

No surprise in either case, I’d say. As to how it might affect the 2018 Bulldogs, any loss of elite talent such as these two is going to hurt your team. Sure, they will be replaced by others, but to assume that it will be an equal or even net gain trade-off would be foolhardy.

But, in each case, the moves were made with their personal futures in mind, not Georgia’s. On that front, I’d argue that they were justified and understandable.

Eason should arrive back in Lake Stevens, Wash., with his bags packed full of good will and kudos from Bulldogs fans. I certainly hope he does. The young man certainly didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, I’d go as far as saying he did everything right.

There is no question he did once that fateful injury sidelined him on Sept. 2. Running to the sideline under pressure from an Appalachian State defender, Eason caught a little shove in the back as he was heading out of bounds. That little bit of force caused him to land awkwardly on his left leg as he tried to step over the yard-marking chain and all sorts of other sideline flotsam with those long and lanky legs. It was just enough to sprain the medial collateral ligament and sideline him for at least four weeks.

Then the world discovered Jake Fromm. The freshman from Houston County, who thought he might play in garbage time that day, had to scramble to throw on his helmet and get in the game. Fifteen games and 13 wins later, it was only at garbage time that he left a game the rest of the way.

The season didn’t end until last Monday, when Georgia fell short in the National Championship Game against Alabama, 26-23 in overtime. There were a lot of reasons the Bulldogs lost, but quarterback play wasn’t one of them.

One of the memorable scenes for me at the end of that heartbreaking loss involved Eason. The former 5-star quarterback prospect nicknamed “Skinny” – who is not so skinny anymore — waited inside the tunnel leading to Georgia’s locker room for Fromm to come off the field. Eason greeted his road-game roommate with a hug and put his arm around Fromm as they made their way out of the limelight.

Eason told us in Los Angeles during Rose Bowl preparations that he was healthy enough to play again by midseason. But Georgia, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney also would attest, made the choice to stick with Fromm, who at that point remained undefeated and was improving at an incredible rate with each week.

All the while, Eason kept preparing and staying ready if called on while also supporting his position-mate. As he said, he always remained “a play away.”

The Seattle Times, citing “several sources,” reported days ago that Eason was transferring to Washington, his home-state school located 45 minutes from his home in Lake Stevens. For what it’s worth, Eason’s father told me in a text they “aren’t a source” and “I don’t know where that came from.”

So Eason may or may not be headed there, but I have no reason to doubt that reputable news outlet. If he lands at Washington, Eason will have to sit out a year. But the biggest thing will be his proximity to home.

Think about these last two years for the Eason family. They have made the trip from Seattle to Atlanta multiple times and were pretty much everywhere Georgia was all this season. They were doing that not knowing whether their kid, the one they call “Jake,” would get in and knowing he probably wouldn’t.

Another year or so of that didn’t make much sense. To have their son just down the road and in position to come home every holiday does, regardless of future prospects.

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Trent Thompson was much less productive as a junior than he was as a sophomore defensive tackle for the Bulldogs. (Brett Davis/Associated Press)

As for Thompson, his decision doesn’t surprise me in the least. Though he was largely insulated from interacting with the media very much since he arrived at UGA, I felt like I knew Thompson pretty well. I spent a couple of days with him down there in Albany for a Next Generation piece I did the week he graduated from Westover High School. I sat in his house and talked to his mom and aunt and little brother and rode around town with Trent and met his uncle down at his Goodtimes restaurant on South Slappey Boulevard.

Thompson is a great college player who probably could benefit from another year in school to improve his draft status and all that. But there are a lot of people in Albany hoping and praying for him to earn a living to help out all his loved ones down there who have lifted him up so much the last several years.

Clearly, Thompson had some medical problems that led to that rather high-profile incident on campus last February. He also battled shoulder and knee injuries that forced him to miss a lot of playing time this season. As a result, Thompson didn’t have as exceptional a season as he did as a sophomore.

But he made it through 15 games still upright and still made a lot of plays for the Bulldogs, including 3 tackles in the title game. Still walking and relatively healthy after all that, I’m sure that made him think, “I better do this while I can.”

Thompson likely won’t be the last of the underclassmen leaving Georgia after this magical season. Linebacker Roquan Smith almost certainly will be next. He is getting some top-10 projections in NFL mock drafts. There is no guarantee, but that is like winning the lottery for you and me. So I’m sure no one will begrudge Smith whenever he makes that decision.

There might be others. Jonathan Ledbetter has been pretty adamant that he is coming back, and that is a very good thing for Georgia if he does. Cornerback Deandre Baker and center Lamont Gaillard are among those who still were thinking about it late in the year. It’d be worth their while to remain in college, in my opinion. But who knows.

I saw some fans post on social media that the news on Friday was adding to their depression from having lost the national championship to Alabama. But it shouldn’t.

This is the price of doing business on this level. This is why Kirby Smart remains such a relentless recruiter and tries to stack 5-star prospects on top of 5-star prospects at every position.

As for quarterback, the Bulldogs will be fine. Certainly, there are some depth concerns. But in addition to getting Justin Fields ready to play fast, the Bulldogs also have Stetson Bennett waiting in the wings. Scoff if you want, but it has been a long time since I’ve heard as many players and coaches rave about a scout team quarterback the way they have Bennett. I’m convinced he could handle anything Georgia needed if pressed into service.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch with great interest how Eason’s future unfolds. He gave Georgia all he had and remained a good teammate and friend when things didn’t go his way.

He told me in L.A. he thought things would have gone just as well for the Bulldogs had he not gotten injured because of the tremendous team chemistry and overall talent this team possessed. Alas, we’ll never know.

But Eason also should leave knowing there is a whole nation of Bulldogs rooting for him going forward. Unless and until they run into each other in the playoffs one day. And even then they’ll probably hope he plays well.

I know I will.