Georgia football-Stetson Bennett-Billy Napier
Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) runs for yards during the third quarter against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, October 15, 2022, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 55-0. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Stetson Bennett, Kirby Smart aren’t overlooking Billy Napier: ‘They’re always going to be a force '

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Stetson Bennett, Kirby Smart praise Billy Napier

ATHENS — For the first time, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and Florida coach Billy Napier will share the field for the first time.

Had Justin Fields not entered the transfer portal in December of 2018, perhaps Bennett and Napier come together much sooner than this.

It’s well-known by now that had Georgia not called at the 11th hour that Bennett would’ve gone to play for Napier at UL-Lafayette.

“It was a tough phone call,” Bennett said. “I’m sure he had to make those same phone calls when he had to go to Florida. That’s just this game. You make your decisions, you let them know, they say alright, you say alright and smile the next time you see them.”

Related: Georgia leaders Stetson Bennett, Christopher Smith interested in different locations for Florida game

Bennett has since become a national-championship-winning quarterback, while Napier turned his success into becoming the new coach at Florida.

The Gators have scuffled a bit at 4-3 this season, with the defense devolving into a major problem for Napier. But the game against Georgia grants him the chance to reshape the tenor of his first season.

Saturday will be the first time Napier takes part in this rivalry. For Bennett, it will be his final trip down to Jacksonville.

For the Georgia quarterback, he’s very much hoping to have a better showing than his previous two trips to Duval County.

In 2020, Bennett got Georgia off to a fast start, building a 14-0 lead over the Gators. But on his second touchdown pass, he suffered a hit to his shoulder.

“I thought I snapped my collarbone in half,” Bennett said. “It hurt so bad.”

Bennett was ultimately replaced as the Bulldogs lost to the Gators. It ended up being the last game Bennett started for Georgia that season, as JT Daniels took over for the Mississippi State game.

Last season, Bennett and Georgia came away with a 34-7 win. But it was the defense that carried the day, as the Bulldogs forced three second-quarter turnovers, one of which Nakobe Dean returned for a touchdown. Bennett meanwhile was intercepted twice and completed only 10 of his 19 attempts.

“We struggled a little bit and the defense had our back that game,” Bennett said.

Bennett was asked directly how he felt heading into his last Georgia-Florida game. He side-stepped the question, adding he hasn’t thought much about it and probably won’t.

A win on Saturday against the coach that badly wanted him would send Bennett out with a winning record in this rivalry. As a South Georgia native, the game obviously means a lot to him.

For Napier, it’s a chance to further show he’s turning around the Florida program. He has the Gators recruiting well, sitting at No. 8 in the current recruiting rankings with the potential to add 5-star cornerback Cormani McClain this week.

Kirby Smart knows both Bennett and Napier well. The Georgia coach worked for three seasons with Napier at Alabama. Napier has actually credited Smart for getting him onto the Alabama staff. While Smart may not have known he’d be matching wits with Napier in Georgia’s biggest rivalry game, he knew Napier had the bonafides to be an SEC-level coach.

Related: Kirby Smart updates injury status of Jalen Carter, AD Mitchell entering Florida game

“I knew from the first time he got to Alabama, I don’t know what year it was, but whatever year he got there, he was going to be really good because he paid attention to detail,” Smart said. “He took a lot of notes. He was just really smart. You knew he was there to learn. And I think he capitalized on his time he spent there to look at football from a different perspective maybe from what he looked at previously.”

We’ll never know how successfully Napier and Bennett could’ve been together. Odds are the two would’ve won a lot, given the success each has had independent of the other.

Finding that success on Saturday would be welcome for both sides. For Bennett, a strong performance on Saturday would finally leave him with some positive memories in a rivalry game that has not seen him perform at his best.

Napier will get a chance to show the country he has this team taking positive steps after the end of the Dan Mullen era. The Gators enter this game as a 22.5-point underdog, believed to be the largest point spread in the long and storied history of this rivalry.

But there’s a real respect for what Florida is capable of. And it isn’t just coming from Smart, ever the one to use coach speak when praising an opponent.

“You can throw records or whatever you want to out the window more so than probably any other game on our schedule when we go down there and play Florida,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Napier has built a good program. I loved him whenever he was at Louisiana. They’re always going to be a force to be reckoned with down there.”

Stetson Bennett praises Billy Napier and Florida football

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