ATHENS, Ga. — Florida’s passing game this year has been good, not great, and it’s fair to wonder if Gators coach Jim McElwain occasionally thinks about the man who could have been his quarterback: Jacob Eason.
“That guy is a special talent,” McElwain said this past week. “He understands the game. He grew up in it. That guy. I really enjoyed being around him and his family in the brief time we were able to. He’s really a good player.”
And a player who will be making his first appearance in the Georgia-Florida game — and thus against the one other program he seriously considered about attending. After the firing of Mark Richt, Florida got Eason in for a visit, and while by all accounts it went well, Eason stuck with Georgia.
“We tried to jump in there, obviously, late, when there might have been a crack. And I don’t know how big the crack was,” McElwain said, chuckling.
Had he flipped to Florida, Eason stood a decent chance of winning the starting job. It ended up going to Luke Del Rio, who in 4 starts has completed 57.6 of his passes for 998 yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Del Rio missed two starts because of a sprained knee, then returned in Florida’s most recent game at Missouri, passing for 236 yards and a touchdown, but also 3 interceptions.
Eason, meanwhile, has had an up-and-down freshman year — but probably more ups than downs.
He’s had two 300-plus passing yardage games, and one 29-yard game, the lowest at Georgia in a quarter-century. Compared to Matt Stafford, to whom he’s most often compared, Eason already has thrown more touchdowns (9) than Stafford did as a freshman. Eason is also on track to be better than Stafford in completion percentage (54.3 for Eason thus far compared to 52.7 for Stafford) and interceptions (Eason has 5, Stafford had 13.)
But Eason doesn’t rank as well compared to current SEC quarterbacks: His quarterback efficiency rating ranks 10th, and his passing yards per game ranks eighth.
“He’s had some really, really good throws, some really, really good reads, and then he’s had ones he’s missed,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s basically the assessment of a true freshman at any position. He’s just at the most critical position.”
Passing has never been the question with Eason, who isn’t available for interview per Smart’s policy on freshmen. It was a matter of becoming a good game manager, and he’s getting there, according to one teammate.
“He’s handling a lot better, he’s starting to put guys in different spots, he’s starting to be a lot more vocal, and he’s being a lot more consistent,” junior tight end Jeb Blazevich. “I mean that’s what we saw in spring, what we saw in summer, he’s just consistently improving. He’s just consistently improving.”
Eason’s game management may or may not have something to do with the occasional struggles of Georgia’s running game. The ability to read a defense before the snap and change the play, or the blocking scheme, is an underrated skill for a quarterback in a pro-style offense. It also comes more with experience.
And when it comes to passing, Eason has had other freshman moments. Last week, in the Vanderbilt loss, he didn’t throw any interceptions, but he did fail to see receiver Jayson Stanley streaking wide open down the left sideline, instead hitting tight end Isaac Nauta for a much shorter gain.
During the bye week, Smart gave Eason a list of what he called “four or five” areas of improvement. Atop the list was communication.
“Making sure that everybody gets the call and knows where they’re supposed to be — that he can fix any mistakes and errors that are there,” Smart said.
Settling his feet in the pocket and reading the coverage were also on the checklist, Smart added.
“For Jacob it’s about improvement, and the guy has improved gradually throughout the year,” Smart said. “He’s had his ups and downs, but he sees a coverage and he understands where to go with the ball. We call all slants, he knows you’re supposed to work the field side. He’s improved at that. He’s got to continue to do that.”