If you’re going to have a quarterback problem, the one Kirby Smart might face this fall with sophomore Jake Fromm and freshman Justin Fields is the good kind: two very talented players and only one starter’s job.
Fromm is the established starter after a year in which he unexpectedly got the job as a result of starter Jacob Eason injuring his left knee in the first game of the year, then held onto the starting spot even after Eason had recovered, and ultimately led his team to a close overtime loss in the National Championship Game.
A year ago, it was Eason who was the established starter, fending off another highly touted early enrollee freshman, Fromm. And, Eason emerged from spring drills and preseason practice still the starter, before getting hurt vs. Appalachian State. After he recovered, however, he was unable to dislodge the preternaturally poised Fromm.
Fromm is taking the competition this year in stride: “The same way Jacob was to me, I try to be that way with Justin,” he said this week. “At the end of the day we learn a lot from each other.”
The 2018 QB “controversy” is a little bit different, though. While Eason and Fromm were more or less cut from the same cloth as drop-back pocket passers (with Eason having the stronger arm, but Fromm being a bit more mobile), the potential freshman phenom this year, Fields, has a different skill set than Fromm. He’s the prototypical “dual threat” QB, just as likely to hurt defenses by running as he is by passing.
There’s also the modern-day coaching problem of trying to keep your quarterback of the future patient on the sidelines when he could be playing somewhere else. Already, Smart has lost Eason to Washington because the 2016 starter wanted to play rather than be an insurance policy holding a clipboard.
Of course, the idea that Smart has two talented QBs to choose from this fall is based on the assumption that Fields progresses at learning the playbook and adjusting to college ball as quickly as did Fromm (a known film room habitué in the mold of Aaron Murray) last year.
Since we haven’t yet seen Fields play (that will come in a couple of weeks at G-Day), the verdict is still out on that one. Last year, Smart spent the spring constantly boosting Fromm. So far this spring, he’s been a bit more reserved on Fields, noting after the first couple of weeks of practice that the freshman was “hitting a little bit of a wall” in his progress.
More recently, after the team’s scrimmage Saturday, Smart said of Fromm and Fields: “Both guys handled the offense well and did a good job of communicating. They handled situations well. I thought they competed hard and did some good things.”
For the sake of argument, though, let’s say Fields is game-ready by the end of August. How should Smart proceed?
Generally, I’m of a belief that you stick with your starter unless he falters, while also working to get your backup as much playing time as possible.
Unless Fromm hit some sort of out-of-character sophomore slump, he’s too good a field general not to be the starter. While the national media seemed to come to the wrongheaded conclusion that he was more of a “game manager,” because of several midseason games where Georgia relied mostly on its awesome running game, having Fromm throw only when he needed to, the fact is that he completed 62.2 percent of his passes and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt, marks that were both second-best among SEC starters. He definitely can throw the ball.
However, Fields isn’t your typical freshman. He was a consensus 5-star recruit, the No. 1-rated dual-threat quarterback prospect and the No. 2 overall recruit in the country, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
And, he presents different challenges to a defense than Fromm, so it’d be great if you make opponents have to prepare for both of them. The easiest way to do that is come up with some special packages that feature Fields in lieu of past plays where Georgia used a receiver or running back taking a direct snap in the Wild Dawg.
I’ve heard some suggest Smart use Fields the way Urban Meyer used Tim Tebow during his freshman year, when Chris Leak was the established starter for the Gators. Tebow was used as a short-yardage, mostly running QB on third down, fourth down and goal-line plays. But, the idea of using Fields in those situations ignores the fact that Fromm generally was excellent in the red zone last season.
On the other hand, some college football observers think that, with Fromm and Fields, you also could make a case for Smart considering something along the lines of the David Greene-D.J. Shockley-scripted rotation that Mark Richt used.
I wasn’t a fan of that rotation when it was happening. I clearly recall Dawgs fans’ frustration with how Shockley’s scripted series sometimes disrupted Greene’s rhythm, and also resulted in turnovers (as in a killer interception returned for a Gators touchdown that the backup QB threw against Florida in 2002).
The problem was that Shockley the backup wasn’t nearly the confident, proficient player that Shockley the starter later would be, and he often tried to do too much in his brief time in the game, resulting in errors like that dismal pick in Jacksonville.
I do think, however, that guaranteeing Shockley regular series in most games paid dividends in his only starting season as a senior.
However, I’m not sure taking the long view is a good plan these days, when a player such as Fields is unlikely stick around as a three-year backup before getting his shot at starting.
I put this debate to a number of UGA fans last week, to see what they thought Smart should do with his two scholarship quarterbacks.
Longtime Dawgs fan Mike’s take: “I don’t like rotating, either, but, in this case, Fields has got to play. To keep him, to put pressure on defenses, to make teams prepare for two very different QBs, to make the offense much more diverse, to create opportunities when top defenses stop the pass.”
Added Mike: “I still say this Fields/Fromm thing will be fascinating, and potentially uncomfortable, as it plays out. Not just this season but the next two seasons. I like Fromm a ton, but I think Fields is the QB to change the program, win national titles, and get more athletes like him to consider Georgia. It was clear Richt wanted a safe QB so he missed out on [Deshaun] Watson and others, and it hurt the program.”
Another lifelong fan, Scott, noted that “playing two QBs is always a high-risk, high-reward gambit. … Is [Fields] really ready to run parts of our offense effectively? It does no good to switch up QBs if the new guy isn’t bringing real stress to opposing defenses, and he can’t do that on potential alone.”
Scott pointed out that, when Richt had his two-quarterback system, he basically had Shockley running the same plays (with minor modifications) as Greene, just not as well as Greene ran them. “What was the point, other than to make D.J. happy at the time? You risk messing with team chemistry (see Jeff Pyburn-Buck Belue). I think the coaches did a great job last year of realizing that giving Eason more meaningful reps would have undercut Fromm’s leadership, while not really changing the kind of plays we were running.”
But, if you’re talking about the sort of running QB/passing QB arrangement that Vince Dooley used with Ray Goff and Matt Robinson, or as Meyer did with Leak and Tebow, “where the play calling is switched to emphasize the skill sets, that’s different,” Scott said. “Everything I’ve read says Fields brings that different dimension, but, if he’s not yet ready to run his packages, it’s a moot point. Hopefully, by September he will be.”
I agree. I think there’s no point in playing Fields unless he’s running a package designed for his talents. The occasional play should work fine (as with the Wild Dawg), whereas doing a Greene-Shockley scripted rotation would run the risk of disrupting the offense. And, I think the chances of Fields being all-around better than Fromm in his first year are pretty slim.
My old buddy Steve, who lives and dies Georgia football, looks at it this way: “I am a fan of Jake Fromm, and will be until he gives me a reason not to be. He earned the starting position, and holy cow, look how well he performed. Fields may be a superstar, but he will have to earn it. Don’t just put him in to play because of what he has done in high school.”
But, Steve said, “Putting Fields in for trick plays or just to confuse the defense may pay dividends. Confuse ’em best you can. Make them think. Never hurts to have two really good quarterbacks on the field at the same time — done well, it might work. I’m just not a fan of doing it consistently.”
Ben, who grew up in Athens watching the Dawgs, believes that, “although it’s nice to have two QBs with somewhat different strengths, I think it’s better to stick with one most of the time. Occasionally, a certain situation may call for the backup, but, generally speaking, it’s better to have a clear No. 1.”
Another fan, Charlie, said that, “even if all the hype is true, and the guy is a hoss, I basically agree with you: QB is a slot where you pick a guy and go with him. If Fields can beat out the guy who led Georgia to the National Championship Game, well, then more power to him.”
Charlie adds, though, “assuming Fromm holds the starting position, I’d favor pulling him as soon as a game is safe and letting Fields get as much time under center as possible. My sense is also that Fields is a versatile enough athlete that it may be possible to put together some nifty trickery using both of them. The only thing that might be better is a left-handed Hawaiian.”
The success Alabama had with inserting its freshman backup, Tua Tagovailoa, in the second half of the National Championship Game wasn’t lost on my brother Tim, either. “Fromm should start them all and, if the offense is as good as I think, Fields mops up at the end of the third quarter and fourth. Like Bama last year.”
Finally, my old schoolmate Charles added another wrinkle to the discussion: “I could see Fields as an H-back or a running back in the backfield with Fromm.”
Interesting idea. I’d love to hear what you think Smart should do with Fields this coming season. And, if there’s anything else you’d like to discuss about UGA sports, or if you have a question for the Blawg, email me at email@example.com.