ATHENS – The thing about Matt Stafford’s freshman season, as Michael Moore remembers it, was the adjustments: Receivers dropping passes because they weren’t used to such hard passes. Receivers cutting routes short because they were afraid the ball would get there so fast it might hit them in the helmet.
But what Moore and Georgia’s receivers knew in 2006 was that, as rough as it was sometimes, Stafford was bound for stardom. And a decade later, as Moore watches Jacob Eason, he sees the same thing.
“He’s showing the same what we call Stafford-esque qualities,” Moore said this week. “Where you can tell he’s ready for the big time.”
Here’s the thing: Compared to Stafford’s freshman year, Eason has actually been better.
Eason’s completion percentage (54.5) is almost two points better than Stafford’s in 2006. Eason has 11 touchdown passes with three games still to go. Stafford seven. Eason is averaging 196.2 passing yards per game. Stafford averaged 134.5.
But the stat that jumps out the most is interceptions: Stafford had 13, but Eason only has five.
“I saw those stats on social media, and it surprised me,” Georgia senior defensive back Maurice Smith said. “Being Matt Stafford, one of the greats to come out of here, and making an impact in the NFL. It just shows that Eason, he has an ability to either be as good or even better. And I think he definitely is going to make himself known in the next couple years, and he’s going to be a great leader for this team.”
The fact that Eason has been so careful with the ball is the most surprising thing. Kirby Smart, when the lack of interceptions was pointed out, smiled and literally knocked wood on his podium. Smart opined that Eason has been lucky at times – a couple bad throws last Saturday against Auburn were dropped by defensive backs – but added that Eason has also been unlucky at times, pointing to the pass at South Carolina that was right at the receiver, who tipped it up and had it picked off.
“He hasn’t had a whole lot of bone-headed plays,” Smart said.
Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie attributes some of it to Eason’s diligence in the film room, and how he practices.
“He hates throwing interceptions. Even during practice,” McKenzie said. “He gets upset at himself. He watches film every morning, trying to avoid those mistakes. He does that now, even though we’re in classes he comes in early in the morning. I saw him this morning, actually.”
Moore was a fellow freshman during that 2006 season, having redshirted the previous year. Stafford came in with the same amount of hype as Eason, and any skepticism about whether it was deserved quickly went away. Stafford didn’t start the season and had a rocky first half: He started Week 3 and 4, then was pulled in the midst of the Colorado game, and it took until the eighth game for Stafford to re-claim the job.
But Stafford’s interceptions also came in clumps: Three each against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Kentucky, and two against Florida. But he only had one total in the final three games, when he led Georgia to a 3-0 finish, over Auburn, Georgia Tech and a bowl win over Virginia Tech.
“Stafford was a prototype from the day he walked on campus,” Moore said. “When it came to accuracy, he was able to fit balls into spaces that you weren’t really used to. So one of our main things as wide receivers was getting our head around fast enough for him. Because if you didn’t turn the ball around fast enough the ball was going to hit you in the helmet. There was a lot of big adjustments.”
That 2006 Georgia team finished 9-4, winning its final three games. This year’s team could finish with the same record if it wins out. It’s already ensured of having the same 4-4 conference record that the 2006 team had.
Moore, who recently moved to Atlanta and is now pursuing a job in commercial real estate, sees Georgia on the same path now with Eason.
“Once everything clicked, I think it was halfway through Stafford’s rookie season, then we roll into the next season pretty highly-ranked, I think we finished top 2 or 3 when we beat Hawaii. I think that’s some of the similar things that are going on with Jacob Eason,” Moore said.
“He had a coming-out party with this last game. I mean he showed some real poise. Think about it, a lot of people were kind of throwing in the white towel for the season. But for them to have a top 10 come in there, prime time game, and to perform the way he did. He’s just got to keep building on it.”