ATHENS — Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett can be excused — and understood — for having a chip on his shoulder after everything he has been through in his football career.
If anyone knows tomorrow is never promised, it’s Bennett, and that’s probably why he was so ready to seize the moment at Arkansas in one moment, and so quick to shrug it off the next.
“Pretty cool, but we got nine more games, so we have to go get iced up,” Bennett said, asked during his live, on-field SEC Network interview for his reaction after coming off the bench to rally the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs to the 37-10 victory. “Just what we do every day in practice, you can’t do more than that.”
Besides, Bennett said, “I knew we were going to, that first half, wasn’t who we are.”
Little big man
Ah, but this is who Bennett is: A resilient, confident redshirt junior who stays at the ready to prove he can play bigger than the 5-foot-11, 190-frame that leads so many to write him off prematurely.
The No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) play host to No. 7 Auburn (1-0) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Sanford Stadium.
Coach Kirby Smart announced on Tuesday that prized USC transfer JT Daniels has been cleared to play, leading many to pencil him in as the starter.
Smart has said the quarterbacks will compete this week, but he may have tipped his hand when he said he felt experience was the biggest thing at the position.
Bennett, who led Jones County Junior College to a 10-2 record a Mississippi Bowl win in 2018, proved he had a grasp on Todd Monken’s offense against the Razorbacks.
Daniels, a five-star recruit from Southern Cal who had three 300-yard games in 2018 and was en route to another in the 2019 opener before suffering a torn ACL, has also shown he can run a Pro-Style offense with Air Raid concepts.
Smart likely won’t announce a starter until game time.
It’s easy for some to think Bennett might resent Daniels, who transferred to Georgia in May, or begrudge the failed experiment of Jamie Newman, who transferred to UGA in January only to leave after one fall scrimmage.
But Bennett, a consumer economics major, understands how things work on the big-time college football level. From all accounts he has been a positive and steadying source in the quarterbacks room behind the scenes.
“At the end of the day, Coach Smart is bringing everyone in here to compete, and he’s trying to win a national championship,” Bennett said. “If those guys coming here give us the best chance to win a national championship, that’s what he’s got to do, you’ve just got to compete.”
Bennett did just that, completing 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Bennett also proved himself the Bulldogs’ most effective runner on this day, converting a 2-yard fourth down run, scrambling 3 yards for a 2-point conversion and then showing moves and vision on an 11-yard burst on a second-and-10.
Georgia gained 296 yards on 58 plays with Bennett in the game, and 91 yards on 31 plays without him.
Daniels may have more arm strength, better field vision and ultimately more NFL upside.
But the size of the fight in the Dawg that’s Bennett has exceeded notable and reached a compelling level.
Bennett proved himself a viable option that Bulldogs’ fans can’t help but also root for this season.
It’s a story of a player who:
• walked on at Georgia and redshirt the 2017 season
• played a year of junior college football in the backwoods of Mississippi
• returned to UGA on scholarship to serve as Jake Fromm’s backup in 2018
• stuck with the program brought in Newman and Daniels and started a redshirt freshman in the opener.
It would have been easy to understand if Bennett had just given up and left the program, but that’s just not who he is.
“It’s tough, but at the end of the day there’s a lot people in the world, a lot of voices, a lot of people talking a lot of people who don’t know a lot of stuff talking,” Bennett said. “Really, the only people you can listen to are those close to you and yourself, and just work every day.”
So Bennett will listen to the voice in his own head this week. He will ignore the headlines and focus on the detail-oriented plans from Monken — the third different offensive coordinator Bennett has worked with in his three years at Georgia.
“(Monken) is one of the smartest coaches I’ve been with, he’s a stickler about details, which can be aggravating at times when you just want to throw a football,” Bennett said.
“But it’s the only way you can play quarterback in this league is to be detailed, know what you’re doing every time, and knowing what everyone else is doing, so I’ve loved having him, he’s been awesome.”
Bennett came on in relief of starter D’Wan Mathis on the Bulldogs’ seventh offensive series of the Arkansas game with the team down 7-2 and 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
Was it easier coming off the bench in some ways than starting?
“I don’t know about easier coming off the bench versus starting, I can’t speak to that because I haven’t started a game, ever,” Bennett said with a smile.
“But definitely coming in the second half was easier than coming in straight off (the bench), just feeling more comfortable with the guys and and knowing what we were about to do.
“Whenever I”m in there, I’m going to do everything I can to win the football game.”
So it was another odd tale of 2020, in which a perceived fourth-string quarterback came off the bench to provide the leadership and execution needed to keep Georgia football championship hopes alive.
As far as storybook seasons go, Bennett provided quite an opening chapter.