ATHENS — For Georgia coach Kirby Smart to trot out a player before the media is not an insignificant thing. It means one of at least three things: One, you’re not a freshman; two, you’re in the plans; three, he trusts you.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett made his first appearance before reporters on Saturday. As a redshirt sophomore, we’re left to think he’s a part of the Bulldogs’ plans and/or Smart trusts him.
Much has been said and written about Bennett in the days and weeks since he made the surprising decision to return to Georgia this past December. The former walkon left the Bulldogs to attend junior college because he wanted to play and make a name for himself somewhere.
Turns out, that was right back where he started.
Bennett seemed as surprised as anybody about that. He told the story Saturday of waking up on the first day of the early signing period and looking down at his phone to see that he had missed calls from Kirby Smart and James Coley.
“It kind of scared me a little bit,” said Bennett, who had intended to sign with the University of Louisiana that day.
He called them back, and that’s when he received the scholarship offer from Smart. But it wasn’t an easy decision. Bennett was pretty far down the road with his plans to attend Louisiana-LaFayette and competing to be the starting quarterback there. But after a day of deliberation and consultation with his parents and coaches, he decided to return to UGA.
“Being on scholarship is a big thing,” Bennett explained. But he also said he saw it as somewhat of a do-over.
When he was at Georgia before, it with the mentality of a walkon and backup and not as someone who had something special to offer. Between the season he had at Jones County Junior College and what he did and is doing again on the field with the Bulldogs, he’s taking a different approach this time.
“I really didn’t go about my business the way I should have my first time here, working every day, you know, learning the playbook well enough, stuff like that,” Bennett said. “After I left, looking back on that process, I saw that … I didn’t really put myself in the best position. I didn’t do enough to be as good as I could be. I realized that now.”
Nevertheless, Bennett gained the notice of teammates and coaches as a scout-team player. Running the opposing team’s offense every week, he began to build a reputation for giving the No. 1 defense fits. Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith were the first to sing his praises. But his run-and-wing-it exploits didn’t become public knowledge until former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker called him “a beast” while imitating Baker Mayfield and running Oklahoma’s offense against the No. 1 defense in preparation for the Rose Bowl.
Tackle Isaiah Wilson, now a second-year starter on the Bulldogs’ offensive line, was being redshirted during Bennett’s first year. So he was in the huddle as Bennett began build his legend as a scout-team wonder kid.
“He’ll take control of it,” Wilson said of Bennett’s huddle style. “He’s a great quarterback. … A special player. He knows what he’s doing back there and he’s a play-maker. He can use his legs to extend plays.”
Cornerback Eric Stokes, also a redshirt during that 2017 season, called him “a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.”
Asked what he meant by that, Stokes said, “because to be his size and to be able to do the things that he’s able to is really unbelievable.”
Bennett said that scout-team duty is what gave him the belief he could hang.
“That was our favorite, beating the 1 defense,” Bennett said. “Because what else were we looking forward to? We weren’t going to play on Saturdays, so that was our games. We knew we could do it.”
Bennett’s not with the scout team anymore. He’s working alongside Jake Fromm and D’wan Mathis and getting occasional reps with the No. 1 offense.
But he’s under no illusion about what his role is on this team. It is to be ready to go just in case. And he plans to be.
“My biggest thing is to learn the offense in and out and get with Jake and let him teach me,” Bennett said. “He’s been here and he knows everything in and out. … Be the best I can, that’s all I want to be.”