ATHENS — Kirby Smart has explained his offensive philosophy is one of efficiency and common sense: You take what the defense is giving you, and you don’t beat yourself with mistakes.
ESPN analyst and former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers believes that’s a strength for the Georgia head coach.
“The good thing about Georgia, and the good thing about Kirby,” Rodgers said, “is he’s willing to adapt a game plan for what fits that game.”
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (4-1) play No. 8-ranked Florida (3-1) at 3:40 p.m. today in Jacksonville with their season on the line.
Georgia is technically the favorite in Las Vegas by a field goal. But the optics are these are two teams headed in different directions after the Bulldogs lost four starters to injury at Kentucky, and star receiver George Pickens failed to make the trip.
Smart needs a catalyst to change the momentum, and that could come via a QB change if Stetson Bennett doesn’t start playing more like a star and less like the former walk-on and junior college quarterback he once was.
Rodgers, who in 2012 led Vanderbilt to a Top 25 ranking and its winningest season in 97 years, said he didn’t have the strongest arm in his quarterbacking days, either.
Rodgers said for all Bennett does well, his shortcomings could prove costly in the biggest games.
“I think he does an unbelievable job pre-snap at recognizing what run fit they need to get into, the protections and the hots, where he’s leveraged and where he’s not,” Rodgers said of Bennett. “But there are downsides.
“He’s limited in his arm strength, he’s limited in his ability to push the ball downfield … against Florida and Alabama you’re going to need to push the ball downfield.”
The odd thing about it, Rodgers said, is that Smart hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken to stretch the field.
“We talked to Kirby (last) week, and we asked, ‘Why Todd?’ And he said, ‘Vertical passing game,’” said Rodgers, who was on the call for the Georgia-Kentucky game last Saturday.
“I thought that was interesting that was the very first thing he said, was the vertical passing game, which we really haven’t seen a ton of.”
Rodgers said further study revealed Monken’s plans have been limited by receivers inability to grasp the nuances of the offense and carry out their assignments.
Rodgers said he’s not sure if the pro-style offense can work for Georgia, particularly if the Bulldogs’ receivers aren’t able to learn the system.
It worked with Jake Fromm, who was known for his high football intellect, as UGA ranked No. 2 in the SEC in red zone efficiency last season. Fromm was also No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency when surrounded by experienced receivers in 2018 who could execute Jim Chaney’s system.
This season, the Bulldogs are 11th in red zone efficiency, Monken somewhat “handcuffed” by Georgia’s quarterback play and experience at the skill positions.
“It is complex, and that’s why Stetson is the signal caller now, because he can do what they need him to do before the snap and after the snap, which is a lot of alerts, a lot of double calls, two plays called, so he’s got to get them in the right play, it’s very complex,” Rodgers said. But it also limits the ability to get the most talented players on the field.
“I think that’s why Justin Fields, even when he was at Georgia — remember when he used to come in? There would be a mental mistake, the ball would be on the ground, he’d miss a motion, he didn’t look like the Justin Fields that we see at Ohio State, why? Because the offense wasn’t fitting what his strength was, which was playing wide open, and playing fast.”
Rodgers, however, said there’s one other quarterback on the Georgia roster who could run the Air Raid-style offense that Monken was hired to bring to Athens right now.
Rodgers said if he was head coach, all things being equal and JT Daniels being healthy, he would have made Daniels the starter during the bye week.
“JT might be the most cerebral, and also it’s very obvious that he’s the most talented of the throwers,” Rodger said. “I really want to know what’s going on inside there, because if it’s me, I left that Alabama game — and again, I love Stetson Bennett, he reminds me of me because I wasn’t very talented either, and I hate that I’m about to say this — but if it was me after that game, I’d go Stetson can win us every game except for this Alabama game, and you know Stetson might even be able to win us the Florida game, depending on how the defense does, but if we’re going beat Alabama, I think we need more talent at that position.
“I don’t know JT’s knee, or the other limitations, haven’t seen practice, but to me (JT’s) talent and his ability to throw the football is what we’re going to need, let’s put it in now, and let’s hope our defense gets us there, so we’ll be ready at that point.”
Smart chose to stick with Bennett, Rodgers supposes, because “right now Stetson is making enough plays with his legs, and right now he gets them where they need to be, and that’s the limitation with D’Wan.”
What about Mathis?
Rodgers refers back to the complexity of the offense, and the inherent advantage a fourth-year quarterback like Bennett and third-year former starter like Daniels has over Mathis.
Mathis was an early enrollee and went through the 2019 spring drills, but emergency brain surgery in May of 2019 cost him valuable repetitions and work with the team last season. The COVID-19 pandemic erased spring drills, leaving Mathis with very little time on the practice field for development.
“D’Wan hasn’t been in an offense like this,” Rodgers said. “He hasn’t had to make protection checks in high school and understand where hots are coming from, and a run to the three-technique and the one-technique, and know what four years means.”
But Mathis, at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds with 10.8-second speed in the 100 meters, does bring great athleticism and arm strength to the field.
Monken is in the process of developing that talent and teaching the offense, even as other schools will have interest in attaining Mathis via transfer. Mathis was once committed to Ohio State and Michigan State.
Rodgers and many others wondered, if Georgia was only going to throw 14 passes against Kentucky, why not give Mathis some of those snaps to hand off?
Especially with the coaching staff continuing to keep Mathis in the No. 2 job, where he gets to run the team’s game plan each week while Daniels is sent to run the opposing team’s offense on the scout team.
“One of the biggest emphasis for Stetson, and a big emphasis for why D’Wan is No. 2, is the ability to make plays with your feet,” Rodgers said he learned.
Rodgers said having a weaker arm means greater challenges for the entire offense, not just for the quarterback.
“I didn’t have a big arm, I was very similar to where Stetson is at,” Rodgers said. “What I saw was everything shrunk toward me. The less you can threaten a defense vertically, the less they have to worry about backing up, especially pre-snap, the shorter and smaller those windows get in the middle of the field and on the perimeter, so it makes it much more difficult to execute your offense.
“The defense condenses around the ball, and that trickles into the run game, more guys around the offensive line, more guys around the box, the less your run game will be successful,” he said. “I believe that’s one of the issues with Georgia, and I think they want to fix it, and why Todd is here. There’s been a little bit of an inability to adapt offensively.”
And there is the irony, that Smart wants an offense that can adapt to take advantage of defenses, but he hasn’t played a quarterback capable of doing that.
Smart made it clear on his Thursday coaches’ show that Bennett will need to improve his decision making.
Georgia has other options at quarterback, and there’s a chance Smart might be ready to make a move against Florida, if necessary.