ATHENS — Stetson Bennett caught the attention of many of his Georgia coaches and teammates four years ago when playing the role of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield for the scout team against a defense prepping for Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
Fast forward to this week, as UGA has worked to prepare for Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Bryce Young leading up to the SEC Championship Game at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Smart, asked how the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (12-0) are preparing for Young and the explosive Tide (11-1) invoked the name of Bennett again.
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“We go good on good (in practice), so we get to go against Stetson quite a bit who’s got some similarities,” Smart said. “Bryce Is just elite with his touch, his accuracy, decision-making, His release is so quick.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban was equally as effusive in his praise of Bennett, revealing that he’s seen great improvement from the Bulldogs’ quarterback since last season’s meeting between the teams.
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“I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence, and obviously the experience that he’s gained through having additional starts, learning more of the offense,” Saban said of UGA’s fifth-year quarterback and former walk-on. “He does a really good job executing what they do. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s accurate with the ball.”
Smart has talked about the mobility that Bennett brings to the offense and the sorts of problems that can cause for defenses.
Saban zeroed in on the same things when discussing Bennett, a finalist for the Burlsworthy Trophy.
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“He can extend plays, but I think he’s really smart, (and) he sees what the defense is going to do,” Saban said. “He gets the ball out of his hands very quickly to the right guys, for the most part.”
Smart said last week he wanted Bennett to make quicker decisions with the football and be careful when extending plays.
“When you start extending the plays, the good things can happen and the bad things can happen,” Smart said, “so you’ve got to be wise about the way you go about it.”
Bennett indicated the practice he has put in has him prepared to protect the football against Alabama.
“You’ve got to rep it enough in practice to where it becomes second nature,” Bennett said. “You can’t go out there and think, ‘be careful here,’ because that’s how you play not-to-lose instead of playing-to-win. (It’s) those million reps you have in practice with the mindset of protecting the ball and being a ballplayer.”
Bennett said that he’s learned since last year’s game at Alabama, where he took a 24-20 lead into halftime before the Tide rallied for a win, that he doesn’t have to put too much on himself.
“You don’t have to win the game on every play, because you can’t win it on every play,” Bennett said. “Our defense and the players we have, focusing on them and the strengths of the team, not trying to do it all yourself.”
Here’s a look at how Young and Bennett compare this season
Bennett 119-of-183 passing (65.03-percent), 1,985 yards, 21 TDs, 5 Interceptions
Young 288-of-418 passing (68.9 percent), 3,901 yards, 40 TDs, 4 interceptions
Young 68 attempts, 233 yards gained, 242 yards lost, -9 net, 2 TDs.
Bennett 38 attempts 283 yards gained, 43 lost, 240 net, 1 TD
2. Bennett, 188.55
5. Young, 182.16
11. Young, .689
35. Bennett .650
Completions per game
11. Young, 24.0
NR. Bennett, 10.8
Passing yards per completion
1. Bennett, 16.68
30. Young 13.55
Passing yards per game
7. Young 325.08
82. Bennett 180.45
2. Young 40
33. Bennett 21
Yards per pass attempt
2. Bennett 10.85
8. Young 9.33