ATHENS — It was nearly 60 years ago, but Fran Tarkenton remembers how he felt the first time he stepped on the field as Georgia’s quarterback. It wasn’t as a freshman – they couldn’t play varsity back then – and he didn’t start his first game as a sophomore. Then he went in during the middle of the third quarter, on the road, at Texas.
Georgia hadn’t scored all game, and Tarkenton’s first drive started with the Bulldogs pinned at their own 5. It ended with a 95-yard drive, a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to take the lead.
“I didn’t flinch,” Tarkenton said. “If you can play, you can play.”
That’s how the Hall of Fame quarterback feels about Jacob Eason.
The debate will rage all summer: Should Georgia start Eason, the five-star freshman quarterback, in the season opener against North Carolina? Or should it bring him along slowly, and go with veterans Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey?
Tarkenton was quick to point out that he hasn’t seen Eason in person – he missed the freshman’s sterling G-Day performance – and is only going on what he’s heard. Which is all good. But when it comes to the overriding question, Tarkenton’s attitude is that a quarterback either has it or he doesn’t.
“When the lights go on and the people start playing real ball, do you (expletive) in your pants or do you come alive?” Tarkenton said. “You’re a performer. You’re on Broadway. You think those Broadway great talents, (they say) let’s hold them around for three years? They know the second they step on the stage whether they’ve got stage fright or not.”
Tarkenton, who lettered at Georgia from 1958-60, was speaking after a ceremony at Clarke Central High School, where he was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the “Hometown Hall of Famer” program. Tarkenton attended the school when it was known as Athens High School, before going to Georgia and then embarking on his storied NFL career.
Never one to be shy about his feelings, Tarkenton brings plenty of credibility to the quarterback subject. He started for 18 years in the NFL, leading the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls. (Though no wins.)
Wally Butts, his head coach at Georgia, was quoted as saying Tarkenton “has no superior as a field general and ball handler.”
The most important thing about a quarterback, Tarkenton opined on Tuesday, is his leadership ability, and his poise on the main stage. Everyone at this level has arm strength, he said. It’s the intangibles that separate.
Tarkenton made the comparison between fellow in-state Georgia prospects Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson to the championship game last season, and Brice Ramsey, who has yet to start at Georgia.
“We took him over Deshaun Watson,” Tarkenton said of Ramsey. “And you watch him throw the ball, God almightly every time I see him throw the ball I say holy cow, he can throw it. But beyond that he hasn’t proven that he can play.”
Then there’s Eason, whose hype was stratospheric coming out of Washington State. Then he lived up to it on G-Day last month, the same way baseball pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut in 2010 for the Washington Nationals somehow exceeded the hype.
The cautionary note on Eason is that his performance, as good as it was, came against the second-team defense. Tarkenton shrugs that off.
“If you can play, you show it against the second-team defense or the first-team defense,” Tarkenton said. “You’ve gotta make a throw. You’ve gotta make a read. And he evidently made throws. He was accurate, and at the end of the day I’m not so impressed with whether he’s got a big arm or doesn’t have a big arm. I’m more impressed with whether he’s got accuracy. No quarterback has ever been a great quarterback without accuracy.”
Tarkenton’s career passing percentage in the NFL was 57 percent. He set an SEC record in 1959 with a 60.7 completing percentage.
“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t start against North Carolina – from what I hear about him,” Tarkenton said of Eason. “Now, I’ve never met him, I’ve never seen him play, so I’m not a good judge. Except I have a little knowledge of the makeups of quarterbacks.”