ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have made it abundantly clear this fall that the Bulldogs’ quarterback position is wide open.
“You don’t rule anything out,” Chaney surmised on Saturday, pointing out it will ultimately be Smart’s decision when asked about the potential for both quarterbacks to play regularly in each game.
A quarterback battle or two-QB system might go against conventional wisdom when one considers sophomore Jake Fromm led Georgia to the SEC Championship Game and national title game appearance as a true freshman.
But these are unprecedented times across the major college football landscape, where transfers have become more prevalent and patience often decreases with each star in a prospect’s recruiting ranking.
Volatility under center
The quarterback position is not surprisingly the most volatile, and Smart and Georgia dealt with it first hand when Jacob Eason transferred to Washington in February.
“Each year it’s probably going to be more and more prevalent as kids transfer and move because you don’t find the guy willing to come in and play like Hutson Mason did,” Smart said last Friday. “You don’t find the guy willing to wait his turn and play like AJ McCarron did. They’re more often gone.”
Most recently, Alabama’s 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Jalen Hurts, rocked the boat in Tuscaloosa with comments that paint Nick Saban’s player management style in less than a positive light.
Georgia’s situation with Fromm and talented freshman Justin Fields doesn’t appear to be headed down that road.
The Bulldogs clubhouse sounds and appears to be in healthy working order this fall.
Coaches and players have discussed Georgia’s most recent high-profile quarterback competition candidly, complimentary of both players and confident the coaching staff will make a decision in the best interest of the team.
“We know our coaches will put us in the best situation to win,” senior receiver Terry Godwin said at SEC Media Days in July, “so whoever they put back there or put on the field, we know they’re putting the best person out there to help our team win.”
It’s clear Smart is a player’s coach at heart, and he may be in better position to manage a high-profile quarterback competition than other collegiate coaches with his recent experience and background.
After all, as a former All-SEC safety at Georgia Smart understands big-time college football from the players’ perspective, having dealt with the pressure of competing under the microscope in the SEC himself.
It helps that Smart is also one of the younger head coaches in the SEC. At 42 years old, Smart can more easily relate to today’s players than some of the more older coaches.
Smart took time at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., to explain his approach to handling the inherent issues that come with managing multiple quarterbacks at college football’s highest level.
“I would argue if you are a parent of a quarterback that you would say, ‘you know what, where is my son going to get the best development, where is he going to get the best reps and learn to play a quarterback position like it is in the NFL?’ “ Smart said.
“Not necessarily play first, but where will he learn to play the position, and sit in the meeting room where they teach you protections and the things you need to know at the next level,” Smart said. “Because they don’t draft you at the next level just based on your play performance, they want to see what system you played in, how did you play, did you grow as a quarterback, have you learned.
“It’s tough keeping them around because they are all used to going where they can play right away.”
Smart has said this fall that the Georgia quarterback position is like every other on the Bulldogs team in that there’s open competition.
“For me it’s all about who’s going to play with the most consistency, who’s going to do things naturally as a leader and understand and develop and make right decisions at every position,” Smart said last Friday.
But earlier this spring, Smart conceded quarterback is also different than most every other position in another sense.
“It’s different than every other position on the team because every other position on the team, other than maybe kicker, they know they can have another role,” Smart said in Destin, referring to special teams contributions.
Smart said part of the issue has to do with human nature and the way many — but not all — young athletes approach things.
“It’s a me-now society, they want the self gratification, they want to know they are going to be able to play,” Smart said.
Smart’s answer to that is open and honest communication, and a team-first mantra that discourages players from threatening to transfer early in their careers.
Indeed, Smart reinforced that at his press conference last Friday.
“You want guys who want to win championships, [and] you want guys who want to be the best they can be,” he said. “Does that necessarily mean they play every snap as a freshman? Not necessarily.”
As for the players who threaten to transfer if they don’t get immediate playing time, Smart indicated he has no time for those types of individuals.
“What we’ve driven home to those guys is everything you get here, you will have to earn,” Smart said last Friday.
In Destin, Smart was even more specific.
“I don’t think you play that [threat of transfer] into the decision, [because] then you are being manipulated and dictated to, and you have to do what’s best for your team,” Smart said, “and you’ve also got to do what’s best for each young man on your team for their development.
“It’s about the team, and you can’t be just about you, even through there is a me generation and me society. I think you can sometimes, when you explain it to them that ‘this is what’s best for you,’ then you can help them understand why you’re trying to do what you’re doing.”
The quarterback transfer issue, however, is very real.
Smart spoke in Destin about Georgia’s disappointment in losing third-team quarterback Stetson Bennett earlier this spring.
Bennett, for his part, explained how Smart communicated with him.
“Even when I told Coach Smart that I was looking to go before I made my mind up per se, he would give me advice on what JUCO to go to,” Bennett told DawgNation. “Not specific schools. But what to look for in the team. He wanted to make sure that program had all their eggs lined up in the right row and was going to look out for me and support me.”
For now, Georgia has two scholarship quarterbacks on its roster, and Smart said that’s more a matter of the numbers game that it has all become.
“You have to do the math, how many Division I schools are there, 130?” Smart said. “Everybody would like to have three-deep, and how many is that, 390? That’s crazy to me.”