ATHENS — Sometimes teams have a great quarterback with nobody else to speak of playing behind him. Sometimes teams have no idea whether they have a decent quarterback and need somebody to distinguish himself. And, ever so rarely, sometimes teams have two great quarterbacks.
The Georgia Bulldogs believe they fall in the last category. But no matter what a team’s particular scenario is at football’s most important position, you’re usually going to hear the head coach say they have an “open competition.”
The question is whether it’s real or imagined.
“To start with, competition, as we know, is good for business no matter what field you’re in,” said Vince Dooley, who oversaw several quarterback competitions in 25 years as Georgia’s coach. “It’s not just athletics. Whatever endeavor, competition is good for everybody, and that’s certainly true of quarterbacks.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is sure to say there will be a quarterback competition heading into spring practice, which starts in two weeks. The Bulldogs feature a returning starter in Jake Fromm who won 13 games a year ago and led UGA to an SEC championship and National Championship Game berth. But, by all accounts, he’ll have to beat out freshman Justin Fields to keep his job as starting quarterback.
That was how Smart framed the quarterback position last year despite the return of incumbent Jacob Eason. The sophomore Eason remained ahead of Fromm in both the spring and preseason camps despite non-stop glowing reports about the freshman’s leadership traits and feats on the practice field as well as the meeting room. But then fate intervened and Fromm was thrust into the action. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, he proved worthy of the preseason praise.
Now Fromm is wearing the incumbent hat. The hope for Smart is that Fields, the 247Sports composite 5-star-rated prospect from Kennesaw, Ga., can place similar pressure on Fromm. Whether Fields can do that won’t be known until he finally gets on the field for some full-speed 11-on-11 work.
Houston Nutt played quarterback in college. At Arkansas, he was the young player who beat out the incumbent, then he was the one who lost his job and ended up transferring somewhere else. Later, Nutt had to manage those competitions as the quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma State and then head coach at Boise State, Murray State, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
He likes his vantage point better now as a college football studio analyst with CBS.
“There’s nothing like having two guys in that quarterback room who are competing hard and know they have to be at their best every day,” Nutt said. “The best scenario is they know the other one has talent and there’s respect there. Then there’s intensity in everything they do, from studying to individual drills to team drills, because they want to be best. For a coach there’s nothing better than that, because they’re both going to get better.”
Earning the confidence of his new teammates will be Fields’ greatest challenge, Nutt said. That’s also Fromm’s greatest asset.
“Jake Fromm earned his stripes; his teammates know it,” Nutt said. “That’s the biggest advantage he has. His teammates know how he took over the team and took them to the mountaintop. Coach Smart knows that, and I’m sure his quarterback coach knows that. On the same hand, though, it has to be instilled in Jake Fromm’s mind that he can’t just go through the motions. He can’t assume he’s the guy. The attitude has to be that, ‘I’ve got a guy on my heels.’ He’s got to keep improving and keep competing.”
Heading into last season, Smart maintained that Fromm’s skill and work ethic had made Eason a better quarterback. Alas, nobody was able to validate that. Eason was injured on the third offensive series of the season and was never able to regain his status when he was cleared to return five games later. Eason transferred to Washington after the season.
That has left the Bulldogs with only two scholarship quarterbacks this season. As a result, Georgia has to get Fields ready to play regardless of how well he’s able to compete with Fromm on a day-to-day basis
“Sometimes we find ourselves saying, ‘We don’t have any depth,’ ” Dooley said. “Sometimes that’s because the first-teamer is so good. We didn’t have a lot of depth behind Bill Stanfill or behind Jake Scott. We didn’t have any depth behind Herschel Walker, really. But in the case of these two quarterbacks, I don’t think there’s any question they’re both good.”
That can make it really tough on the coaches. Dooley said the most difficult competition he had to manage was between quarterbacks Ray Goff and Matt Robinson. Robinson, the incumbent, ended up winning the job but was injured in the second week. Robinson never won the job back from Goff but they both played, with Goff assuming the role of primary runner in the veer offense and Robinson as the designated passer.
That was the resolution for David Greene and D.J. Shockley, as well. It could be the ultimate outcome for Fromm and Fields; Fields is considered an excellent runner.
“The paradox is with only two quarterbacks, how much do you let Fields run and how many QB runs do you put in?” former Georgia coach Jim Donnan said. “But the bottom line is an open competition is what Fromm thrived in and benefited from, and Fields will be given the same opportunity.”
Indeed, having them both excel would be the best-case scenario for the Bulldogs, who are trying to repeat as SEC champions and return to the College Football Playoff.
“This is good for Georgia,” Nutt said. “To me, it’s just like Alabama’s situation. Jalen Hurts has lost, what, one or two games? He gets pulled in the second half of the championship and Tua [Tagovailoa] comes in and wins the national title. Now what? Well, what does Coach [Nick] Saban say? ‘Well, I think there’s a role for both of these guys.’ Of course, he wants them both to stay!
“Same with Georgia. You want them both to stay and both to play. That’s the scenario you want.”