ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart elaborated on choosing former walk-on Stetson Bennett to start over former Ohio State commit D’Wan Mathis and former USC starting quarterback JT Daniels on Monday.
Bennett, who has thrown five interceptions between the past two games, ranks 8th in the SEC in QB rating, and the Bulldogs are 11th in the league in Red Zone efficiency.
“Ultimately we feel like Stetson gives us the best chance to win right now,” Smart said during his Monday Zoom press conference call.
The Bulldogs figure to need more help from their offense than usual with four starters getting knocked out of the Kentucky game, and preseason All-American Richard LeCounte crashing a motorcycle on Saturday night.
Smart indicated it’s his decision which quarterback is under center for the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (4-1), who play No. 8 Florida (3-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday (TV: CBS) in Jacksonville in a battle for SEC East Division honors.
Georgia’s first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Smart said, “has total autonomy when it comes to offensive decisions, in terms of selecting what he carries into a game, play-calling.”
Smart revealed during the off week two weeks ago that his role beyond picking the starting quarterback centers around scouting the other team’s defense.
“It’s not so much as game-planning, as (seeing) what gives the defenses problems, because you’ve gotten to the point now where you’ve seen the SEC defenses so much, you know the coordinators, you know their tendencies,” Smart said.
“You see how other people, offensively try to attack those defenses, and that’s where I try to contribute to the offense, is just on personnel of the defense, or who might be a weakness, or schematically what might be a weakness by formation.”
Monken, a former NFL offensive coordinator who orchestrated the NFL’s top passing offense at Tampa in 2018, was allowed to speak with the media only once since his hiring last January.
“You’ve got to find a way to be explosive consistently, and then you’ve got to be able to score touchdowns in the red zone,” Monken said. “Your ability to run the football (and) put the defense in run/pass conflicts is the number one way to get explosives, either hitting open space in the intermedia levels or over the top.
“The next part is how do you get really good skill players in space that can make people miss, at every level. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. I think we have those guys to do it.”
JT Daniels’ deal
Smart hinted Daniels might not yet be 100 percent, even though he was cleared for game action on Sept. 28.
Smart was asked specifically on Monday if there were any limitations that could be holding back the former 5-star prospect.
“The only physical limitations are still, would be coming off the knee, which he hasn’t shown a lot of ailments coming off the knee, he’s been out of the brace and been able to throw the ball, he’s done a good job,” said Smart, who had Daniels and Mathis work with the second team during the bye week, keeping Bennett with the starters.
“He comes down and throws on the scout team, and competes and does a really nice job down there with us.”
But not good enough to earn any snaps this season, as Georgia has gone exclusively with Bennett since the second quarter of the Arkansas game when the redshirt junior came on in relief of Mathis.
The 6-3, 210-pound Daniels became only the second true freshman in school history to start for USC in 2018, throwing for more than 300 yards on three occasions including a school-record 37-of-51 passing performance against Notre Dame that accounted for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Daniels was the Trojans’ starter entering he 2019 season and was 25-of-34 passing for 215 yards in the first half against Fresno State before suffering a season-ending torn ACL.
Daniels was taking first-team reps with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman in August before Newman transferred after the first scrimmage.
Smart said at the time UGA expected Daniels to be cleared for the opener, but when he failed to get cleared two weeks later, the Bulldogs went with Mathis as a starter for the season-opening game.
Smart steadfastly denied the Georgia offense had any limitations following the team’s 14-3 win at Kentucky on Saturday, adding there was never any thought of making a QB change even after Bennett threw two interceptions.
But, Smart conceded, there is competition at the position.
“The decisions we make as coaches are decisions we have to make, they are tough decisions, no different than they are with who plays corner, who plays tackle,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of really good competitions out there going on.”
The quarterback competition comes into focus with the Bulldogs because Bennett’s size (he’s generously listed at 5-foot-11) and relative lack of arm strength has led UGA to rely heavily on short passes, slot receivers and tight ends.
George Pickens, the team’s top perimeter threat and the MVP of the Sugar Bowl with a 12-catch, 175-yard performance, has just 13 receptions for 130 yards in the four games he has played.
Smart offered a few suggestions for Bennett when asked how quarterback play could improve before deflecting to other positions.
“We can improve in a lot of ways: We can improve by protecting the ball, sliding once you make a good decision to run, and when you get near contact, you can get down,” Smart said. “Good decisions with the ball, in terms of, if you’re gonna throw it out of bounds, throw it out bounds, if you’re gonna hit the check down, then check down.
“But there’s a lot of places we can improve. We can improve with our route running and our route communication, our ability to finish blocks on the perimeter, when we get the ball on the perimeter. There’s tons of places we can improve.”
Smart indicated Georgia might be dialing back from the Air Raid concepts it opened the season with after Bennett’s 18-of-40, 269-yard three-interception performance in the 41-24 loss at Alabama on Oct. 17.
“We can’t get in a boat race where we’re trying to outscore people,” Smart said. “We have to play our brand of football and help Stetson (Bennett) with the people around him, is probably the No. 1 thing.”
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Mathis has been the subject of several transfer rumors over the past month after appearing disengaged from the other quarterbacks on the sideline.
Smart was asked if he had any conversations with Mathis since the end of the Bulldogs’ 14-3 win at Kentucky last Saturday night.
“I talked to him before practice, I talked to him for a while,” Smart said. “We kind of visit each week with the quarterbacks to keep them updated on where things are. He wants to play. He is a competitor. He wants an opportunity to get in and compete.”
Smart said if Mathis can prove in practice he’s better than Bennett, he will get an opportunity to play.
“D’Wan gets a lot of work, and a lot of reps, and keeps really hard at that,” Smart said. “And if he continues to improve and shows us that he’s the better guy, then he would be the guy up. Same thing with JT.
“JT probably doesn’t get as many opportunities as Stetson does and D’Wan does, because he works down there with us some of the scout team.”
Smart has been asked at each of his press conferences about the quarterback position and made it clear again on Monday that Bennett is his pick.
“But at the end of the day, guys, the decision has to be made by us who gives us the best chance to win,” Smart said. “We do that based on the total volume, work, and that’s a decision we have to make.”
Georgia-Florida Game Week