ATHENS — Kirby Smart doesn’t often elaborate on individual awards, but the Georgia head coach made an exception on Wednesday for the Burlsworth Trophy when asked about quarterback Stetson Bennett being named one of three finalists this week.
The award is named after former Arkansas offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth and recognizes the most outstanding college football player in America who began his career as a walk-on.
“It’s a special award to me because the backstory is, I was with the Colts in the 1999 preseason and Burlsworth was there,” said Smart, who signed with the Indianapolis NFL franchise as a free agent after piling up 13 interceptions as a player at Georgia and earning All-SEC honors in 1998.
“He was a drafted player there, and we both were at the Colts at the same time, and then the tragic accident happened.”
Burlsworth, a three-year starter for the Razorbacks, was killed in a car accident in Alpena, Ark., on April 28, 1999, while returning to his hometown following a workout in Fayetteville. The accident occurred just more than a week after the Colts made Burlsworth the No. 63 pick of the NFL draft overall with the second selection of the third round.
“We came in at the same time, and came in the same day, and started meeting and prepping,” said Smart, who went through the April mini-camp alongside Burlsworth and other Indianapolis Colts’ players.
Bennett, who ranks first in the SEC and third in the nation with a 184.56 pass efficiency rating, was named one of three finalists for the award on Monday along with Razorbacks’ linebacker Grant Morgan and Troy University linebacker Carlton Martial.
Smart said he has told Bennett what Burlsworth was like, and the importance and value of this award.
“I don’t know if people give that award the proper recognition,” Smart said. “Probably one of the coolest, greatest awards to me because it means, I went here to school without a scholarship. I went to do something special. Walk-ons are special because they do it for free.
“Most of the time they get to that award, they are on scholarship and they proved everybody wrong.”
Indeed, Smart indicated after Georgia’s 41-17 win over Tennessee that’s exactly what Bennett has done.
“I’m so proud of what he’s been through, for a young man that was a 3 (third-teamer) coming out of spring, a 3 going into fall camp, a 3 coming out of fall camp,” Smart said.
“What does it say about his character that he stuck around and he kept working to get better? That’s what you’re supposed to do in life, overcome hurdles and obstacles and he’s done that.”
Bennett walked on at Georgia before the 2017 season and was one of four players named the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year.
Bennett spent 2018 at Jones (Miss.) Junior College before returning to UGA as a scholarship player in 2019 to backup former Bulldog Jake Fromm in the wake of Justin Fields’ decision to transfer to Ohio State.
Bennett’s unique journey will be forever celebrated at all levels of Georgia football folklore.
“Just look at his story; Stet has gone through just about everything a guy could go through that comes to college,” UGA team captain Jamaree Salyer said after Bennett tied a school record with 5 touchdown passes against UAB. “He’s been around five years, I think he went to junior college, here for a year, and then he left, then he came back.
“Won a starting job, lost a starting job, been on the scout team, won big games …. Stet has lived the life of a college athlete to the fullest.”
Kirby reflects on Bennett
Smart remembers his first meeting with Bennett, who is from Blackshear, Ga.
“The first time we met him and had him on OV (Official visit) and you know, he’s competitive, he comes from a competitive family,” Smart said last week. “He’s got two great parents and a great group of brothers and sisters that are all athletes and he grew up a competitor down in South Georgia and he’s kind of been overcoming the odds I feel like his whole career.
“He has played with a chip on his shoulder and when he was here early on, we knew he was a good player. I mean, you got to realize he was in a room with Jake Fromm and Justin Fields. And he went in there, competed, took notes, and I remember sitting in all the meetings, and said, ‘This guy’s done a really good job.’ "
Bennett, however, wanted badly to be on the field so he left Georgia and detoured to Ellisville, Miss., for a season. There, Bennett led Jones College to a 10-2 record and the MACJC conference championship game.
“His journey has been different than probably any other,” Smart said. “I mean, people leave school and go to junior college and play in Mississippi then come back to the same school. You just don’t see that very often in the quarterback position.
“But I still remember the day that we tried to get him back and sign him and it was a decision for us, you know, whether to offer him or not and I’m certainly glad we did and I’m glad he accepted it.”
Run it back
Bennett revealed he nearly left Georgia again last summer after limited opportunities in spring drills behind JT Daniels and Carson Beck.
“You don’t play football forever, and you’d like to play football when you can play football,” Bennett said after UGA beat Arkansas 37-0. “It was a tough decision, probably one of the hardest that I ever made. It was tough and, at the end, I broke it down and I decided to stay.”
Smart put Bennett’s decision to stay into perspective, sharing it was just a matter of a player wanting an opportunity to compete.
“It wasn’t necessarily about the one (starting team) reps, it was about him getting the two’s reps because he wasn’t getting a lot of those,” Smart said. “The way we practice, he wasn’t able to get work in. Probably not as much as he likes.
“He was more frustrated with his reps and volume of reps,” Smart said. “For him, it was more about competition getting an opportunity.”
That’s all Bennett has ever wanted, and he’s making the most of it for the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs this season as the program marches toward what would be its first national championship since 1980.
Smart said Bennett will be among the 28 to 30 seniors who are recognized before the noon game with Charleston Southern on Saturday. But, Smart added, many of those players have eligibility remaining, including Bennett.
The finalists for the Burlsworth Awad will be honored and the winner of the 2021 Burlsworth Trophy named won Dec. 6th at 8:00 p.m. ET at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., two days after the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Former Burlsworth Trophy winners
2020 Jimmy Morrissey, Pittsburgh, C
2019 Kenny Willekes, Michigan State, DE
2018 Hunter Renfrow, Clemson, WR
2017 Luke Falk, Washington State, QB
2016 Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, QB
2015 Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, QB
2014 Justin Hardy, East Carolina, WR
2013 Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin, WR
2012 Matt McGloin, Penn State, QB
2011 Austin Davis, Southern Miss, QB
2010 Sean Bedford, Georgia Tech, C