The seeds of Kirby Smart’s fascination with Justin Fields, a quarterback who can beat you with his arm or his feet, were planted by the last quarterback he faced as Alabama’s defensive coordinator: Deshaun Watson.
The day after the national championship game in January 2016, as he met the media for the first time as Georgia’s coach, Smart had the look of a battle-scarred but lucky man: Alabama had escaped with a 45-40 victory, but Watson had torched Smart’s defense to the tune of 405 passing yards, 73 rushing yards, and one impressive play after another.
The next morning in Athens, Smart was asked if he would try to bring a dual-threat quarterback to his new team.
“I do think that creates challenges for the defense,” Smart said. “If you find the right guy, which I agree with you there have been a lot of good ones to come out of this state, then you use that.”
Fields may end up being “that guy.” His commitment to Georgia on Friday will have people wondering whether Georgia is about to convert its offense to account for a so-called dual-threat quarterback.
But people may be looking at that wrongly. And looking at Watson wrongly.
This isn’t about getting a quarterback who will cause Georgia to change half of its playbook in order to account for his running ability. The playbook may not change. It’s the length of the plays that might change, because a quarterback such as Watson or Fields will — when the pass isn’t there or the defense neglects to cover an area — extend a play with their feet.
Smart saw that in that title game: Alabama had elite talent all over its defense, yet it still got torched because Watson created plays with his feet. And, by the way, that’s what current Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm did just last week at Tennessee, on two straight third downs: When the pass wasn’t there he scrambled, once for a first down, and then for a touchdown.
But Fromm isn’t as fast as Fields. And for those who hear “dual threat” and think mainly run, don’t discount Fields’ passing ability. From all accounts, Fields is pretty good at that, too.
This past summer, as the recruitment of Fields was heating up, Smart bristled at the perceived distinction between pro-style and dual-threat quarterbacks.
“That’s so misused in my mind,” Smart said. “What some recruiting expert or some site says is a dual threat, some kid may say ‘I’m not a dual threat,’ but he’s been labeled as that. What qualifies as a dual threat? Do you have to run 50 percent [of the time]? Do you have to run 20 percent? Or do you just have to be capable of running?
“So we look for the best quarterback to win games, and in a lot of cases that may be a dual-threat guy. I certainly think those guys are more valuable in college than a guy that just sits in the pocket. But when you look at the history of it you could probably say that both [types of] guys have won a lot of games. So it’s how you use those guys. We want to get the best quarterback we can at the University of Georgia.”
Smart actually recruited Watson very hard. But much like Georgia, Alabama’s attempt at him came too late, as Clemson got in early on the Gainesville prospect. Before that 2016 championship game, Smart praised Watson ceaselessly, saying he had the running talents of three quarterbacks he had faced previously: Nick Marshall’s perimeter running ability, Johnny Manziel’s ability in space, and Cam Newton’s physical prowess.
And Watson could pass the ball, as Smart added. Which he did over and over against Smart’s defense.
It’s no wonder Smart was excited about trying to bring someone with that kind of ability to Georgia.
“You do whatever you have to do to win the game,” Smart said the next day. “If that becomes a dual-threat quarterback, then we cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Welcome to the bridge.