ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart went on-and-on at his preseason press conference about how competitive the Bulldogs’ camp was going to be. And he made it clear that concept extends to the quarterback position.
While it’s hard to imagine sophomore incumbent Jake Fromm — who quarterbacked all 15 games for the Bulldogs last season, winning 13 of them — getting beat out by true freshman Justin Fields during 28 practices preseason that might encompass four actual scrimmages. But Smart, in the hours before the Bulldogs took the field for their first one, made it clear that scenario is on the table, just as it is at every other position.
“I look at it like, can Tyson Campbell beat out Deandre Baker? Yeah, Tyson Campbell could beat out Deandre Baker,” Smart told reporters gathered in the team meeting room at the Butts-Mehre football complex. “Can Brenton Cox or Robert Beal have a chance to start over D’Andre Walker? Certainly. Could Jamaree (Salyer) or Warren Ericson work at center and beat out Lamont (Gaillard)? Certainly.
“You might make (of that) a bigger deal than it is, but it’s all about who’s going to play with the most consistency. Who’s going to do things naturally, be a leader and understand and develop and make the right decisions. At every position. So the most important thing for us is, are we headed toward team-oriented decisions and are you working as hard as you can to out-compete the other guys?”
Neither quarterback was available to field questions at Georgia’s media day Friday. But you’ll hear no scoffing about that notion from Georgia’s other players.
Quarterback is unquestionably the most important position in the game of football from both an operations and leadership standpoint, and only one at a time (generally) can be on the field. But the mantra of iron sharpening iron has been drilled into the Bulldogs’ heads so much that they’re left to never relax.
There has to be a hierarchy as each player is assigned a unit, be it first, second or third and so on. But remaining with the “1s” is a never-ending battle, just as it is to not remain at 2.
“Justin had a lot of time in the spring to work and then learn the offense and now a full summer to learn more as well,” junior tight end Isaac Nauta said. “So it’s going to be a great competition at that position, which is what we want. It creates better players and makes everybody around them better. So it’s going to be exciting to see what happens in camp. Both are great players.”
Fromm burst onto the scene last season as an unexpected freshman starter when Jacob Eason went out in Game 1 with a knee injury. What he did in that game and the 14 that would follow would earn him SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America honors. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,615 yards with 24 touchdowns — one shy of Aaron Murray’s freshman record — and just 7 interceptions.
More importantly, Fromm distinguished himself with his command of the offense and an uncanny ability to convert on third down. The Bulldogs’ average of 35.4 points and No. 4 national ranking in red zone offense was reflective of Fromm usually having them in the right play and knowing how to execute it at the snap.
Enter Fields, who at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds comes in as athletically impressive as Georgia has ever had at the position with the wits to match. His escape-ability and speed gives the offense an element it doesn’t have with Fromm, and a howitzer of a throwing arm needs only to find some refinement in accuracy, as does his mastery of route concepts.
Regardless, as the only other option to Fromm, there will be an every-game plan for Fields. As a result, the freshman from Kennesaw is in the midst of a four-week crash course to have Georgia’s offense mastered by the time Austin Peay visits Sanford Stadium.
Teammates have seen enough to know the offense is in good hands.
“I feel confident in Justin; I feel confident in Jake. Both of them are able to lead the team if needed,” said receiver Riley Ridley said. “I feel like (quarterbacks coach James) Coley is coaching those guys up to the point where they’re both leaders and they are both able to make the adjustments we’ll need.”
Said sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas: “This team in general, because we have so much talent, I feel like no spot is guaranteed. Whoever does best is going to play.”
That goes for quarterbacks as well as the 24 other starting positions available to the 110 players on Georgia’s preseason roster. Some, such as Thomas, are more secure in their spots than others.
Others are obviously up for grabs. There are the three linebacker positions abandoned by NFL rookies Roquan Smith, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. There’s the three defensive backfield spots left void by the graduations. Somebody has to absorb the reps logged by noseguard John Atkins and defensive tackle Trent Thompson. The rotation at wideout is up for grabs. As Smart said, nothing is settled at guard or center.
“We’ve got a lot a ton of competition in this camp,” Smart said. “If you look across the board, we don’t really have a depth chart. (The media) has a depth chart, but we don’t because every guy’s getting the same reps at this point. Ones, 2s, 3s, 4s are going to get the same number of reps at practice and we’re going to evaluate them on that and decide who’s doing the best job of competing to the standard we want. We’ll make decisions from there who plays.”
Even at quarterback, as we have learned. But that’s not something this young and highly-regarded team dreads. They seem to have embraced it.
“No one has a spot,” Ridley cheerfully declared. “We’re into camp, first day. It’s time for fur to fly.