ATHENS — Nobody knows exactly what Kirby Smart is going to do at the quarterback position against North Carolina. I’m going to tell you what he should do.
The Bulldogs should start Greyson Lambert against the Tar Heels in the Georgia Dome. They should have a plan to get freshman Jacob Eason in the game, say every third or fourth series or once a quarter or once a half. But the game plan and the charge to go win the game — or not lose it — should be given to the fifth-year senior from Jesup.
Ultimately, I think that’s what’s going to happen.
Nobody around here likes to sing the praises of Lambert for some reason. To be sure, he hasn’t been some kind of dynamo quarterback who wows the crowd by threading lasers through double coverage into the secondary’s deep-third.
No, Lambert is, for the most part, safe. He is plodding but he’s also plotting. He tends to get the Bulldogs in the right play at the line of scrimmage and, when things don’t go well in the passing game, he tends to throw the ball away rather than try to force it in somewhere.
That’s the primary reason Georgia went 10-2 with Lambert as the starter a year ago. But rather than focus on those 10 wins, which nobody wants to do anyway, let’s talk about those two losses.
First there was Alabama. That was a bad day for Lambert, but it was also a bad day for the entire Georgia team, and its offensive line in particular. Playing in monsoon conditions against the best defense in college football, Lambert was 10-of-24 passing for 86 yards and an interception. Notably, he was not sacked. Playing less than a quarter of the time in the same game, Brice Ramsey was 1-of-6 for 20 yards with two interceptions and was sacked twice. The Bulldogs lost 38-10.
Lambert was also the quarterback of record in the 38-31 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville the next week. You might recall that Georgia lost a certain tailback on its first offensive play of that game. Nevertheless, Lambert played pretty well. In fact, if Reggie Davis doesn’t drop a perfectly-thrown deep ball late in that game, it might’ve turned out differently. As it was, in hostile conditions in a nationally-televised game, Lambert passed for 279 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked just once. On a night he was a under heavy pressure throughout, he threw the ball away a lot. Hence his 15-of-32 passing line.
Of course, Lambert didn’t play in Georgia’s only other loss against Florida, and that’s notable, too. Have you ever stopped and wondered how that game might have gone had Lambert played? The Bulldogs might’ve still lost, but it seems safe to reason they wouldn’t have thrown four interceptions or had five turnovers had Lambert partcipated.
As it went, Lambert finished his season with Georgia as a 59 percent passer with 1,959 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. His pass efficiency rating of 141.5 was fifth among SEC quarterbacks.
Fast forward to Sept. 3 and North Carolina. To date, everybody likes to write about how bad the Tar Heels’ defense is, or at least was last year. Indeed, they were among the worst in the country against the run, giving up 645 yards to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl and finishing 121st out of 127 teams in rushing defense (247.4 ypg).
But here’s what you don’t hear as much about the UNC defense under second-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik: The Tar Heels were the nation’s most improved Power 5 defense in 2015. As bad as they were at times last year — they went 11-3 overall — they gave up 14.5 fewer points a game than the previous season.
And say what you want about Chizik and his different incarnations as a head coach. The fact is, the man has two national championship rings, one as defensive coordinator at Texas and one at Auburn. Chizik can coach, and his North Carolina defense figures to be better in year two than one.
Having visited Chapel Hill and its football facility earlier this year, I can promise you their defenders are saying, “Please, Georgia, start the freshman. Please!”
But regardless of the Tar Heels’ mentality, obviously their vulnerability still is against the run. With tailback Nick Chubb healthy again and back in the fold, Georgia’s game plan has to be to pound the football, not just to move it down the field and score points, but also to keep Larry Fedora’s high-octane offense on the sidelines.
Lambert’s the best quarterback to make that happen for the Bulldogs, and that goes beyond his ability to hand off the football. It extends to his ability to recognize what the defense is showing him and checking out of a run to a pass and vice-versa.
Now certainly Eason has the ability to do that. Certainly he’s better at it now in late August than he was in January when he’d just left suburban Seattle high school ball and started learning SEC football in Athens. But there’s no way he’s going to know it as well as the fifth-year guy who will be playing in his 29th college football game, almost all of them televised and meaningful.
That’s why Lambert goes into the game first and plays the most. Yes, absolutely, put in the young kid at some point and see what kind of gumption he has under the bright lights amid the calamitous din. At the worst, if things go awry behind your tried-and-true veteran.you can turn to Eason and let him try to be the hero.
What you don’t do is trot out the hot-shot freshman from the get-go and say, “OK, kid, go show the world what you’ve got. Go prove all five of those recruiting stars are justified!”
Say Georgia does that and the Tar Heels have their way with Eason. What happens then? With what kind of confidence is he left with another 11 games to play?
Alas, as I alluded in a piece on Monday, Smart is a dyed-in-wool Nick Saban disciple. He has stood by Saban’s side as Alabama won four national championships over the last seven years.
And you know what kind of quarterbacks Saban usually won all those games with? Quarterbacks like Lambert. Lest we forget, Lambert was once high on Bama’s recruiting board coming out of Wayne County High.
Here’s what Saban said about Alabama’s quarterbacks recently: “We’ve played here with quarterbacks on good teams that didn’t necessarily do anything to win the game; they just didn’t do anything to lose it. I think it starts with that.”
That’s why Smart should start with Lambert.