ATHENS – By the fifth week of the 2006 season, Matthew Stafford had pretty much established himself as “the man” for the Bulldogs at quarterback. Ultimately, he had gotten the starting job as a true freshman because of an injury to senior Joe Tereshinski III, but he’d already shown his coaches and teammates enough in the first three games and dozens of practices before that he was clearly the most talented quarterback on the roster.
Then came the fourth game.
For whatever reason, Stafford struggled like mad against a visiting Colorado team thought to be considerably inferior to the hosts. He was missing open receivers, he was making the wrong reads, he wasn’t checking out of bad plays. Finally, trailing 13-0 with the third quarter coming to an end, the Bulldogs had seen enough. Quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo turned to Joe Cox and told him he was going in the game.
Cox, who started the season as Georgia’s third-stringer, had the quarter of his life. He completed 10-of-13 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to tight end Martrez Miller with 46 seconds to play. The Bulldogs won 14-13.
That didn’t mean Stafford was no longer the quarterback of the future for Georgia. It took a couple of games, but Stafford eventually became the regular starter again. He also became the No. 1 pick of the 2009 NFL draft.
Kirby Smart won’t rule out making such move with his freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason. However, he said it was never a consideration this past Sunday when Eason was having similar struggles against South Carolina.
“Every position is up for grabs when it comes to competition; that’s true at quarterback,” Smart said at the Bulldogs’ weekly news conference on Tuesday. “I think Jacob (Eason) understands that and respects that, that day-to-day you’ve got to go out and earn your position. You’ve got to do that week-to-week. I don’t think that decision is based on statistics.”
Clearly statistics weren’t a consideration on Sunday, because Eason’s numbers were horrific. He was 3-for-13 for 13 yards at halftime and had completed just 1-of-8 passes for nine yards in the second quarter, the lone completion coming on a forward-lateral in the backfield. And he didn’t get much better in the second half.
Eason finished 5-of-17 passing for 29 yards and a touchdown with one interception. It was Georgia’s fewest passing yards in a game in 26 years.
Like Cox, the Bulldogs have an experienced backup to whom they could turn in Greyson Lambert. But the main difference in the two scenarios is Georgia was leading against South Carolina. The Bulldogs were up 14-0 at halftime, but twice let the Gamecocks get to within one score in the second half.
Smart was asked Tuesday at what point he might consider making a change at quarterback.
“It’s based on your ability to execute and perform within the offense,” he said. “Sometimes outside circumstances affect statistics, whether it’s dropped balls, whether it’s poor breakdowns in protection, whether it’s tipped balls. There’s a lot of things that affect that. That position will be evaluated just like every position will be.”
The difficulty in this equation is balancing Eason’s tremendous potential against his ability to learn on the fly. We’ve already seen him lift Georgia to one victory with a tremendous game-winning drive and TD throw in the final minutes of the Missouri game. He also put the Bulldogs in position to beat No. 9 Tennessee with a 47-yard potential-game-winner with 10 seconds left.
However, that was proceeded by a sack-and-fumble touchdown and interception that kept the Vols in it.
Therein lies the tightrope the Bulldogs are walking.
“Composure is one of the best things he’s got going,” Smart said. “The other thing that gives him an opportunity are the players around him. He doesn’t have a big offensive line but he’s got an experienced offensive line. There’s three guys up there who have played a lot of football, really four. That gives him confidence. He’s got good backs around him. That allows him to have some confidence as well.
“Jacob knows that he’s had his ups and downs this season. He’s had his ‘wow’ moments and he’s had his bad moments. I think when you are starting a true freshman you know that you’re going to inherently go through some of those.”
The best thing about this past weekend’s performance is Eason never seemed to get frustrated. That’s according to his teammates, who kept encouraging the freshman throughout the game.
“I think he handled it pretty well,” junior tailback Sony Michel said of Eason’s tough day in Columbia. “I didn’t see him down about it at all. It’s a learning curve. You’ve got to know what it feels like to not succeed before you succeed. And I think he knows that. He goes out there and plays for the team, so he was happy that we got the victory.”
Said wideout Reggie Davis, who Eason missed twice on open routes: “I think he’s playing well. He’s young. What is he, 17 or 18? It’s kind of similar to when I came here. You’re a young person from far away and you’re getting all this stuff thrown at you. I think he’s doing very well.”
So how exactly does Georgia stack up at quarterback this season? Though circumstances vary widely across the nation, Eason currently grades out among the bottom third of 15 FBS freshmen current starting at quarterback for their teams.
Heading into the second half of the season with five starts under his belt, his pass efficiency rating of 112.0 is 104th of 118 quarterbacks overall and 10th among the freshmen. Some of those freshmen are redshirts, such as FSU’s Deondre Francois, who is 38th.
Pass efficiency quantifies per attempt averages for completions, yards, interceptions and TDs. Eason has thrown 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
Eason’s completion percentage of 51.2 percent is particularly disconcerting, especially considering it includes several forward laterals on jet sweeps and includes a lot of limited route progressions. His per game passing average of 170 yards per game is eighth among SEC quarterbacks.
“I think the best thing we can do is give him a better picture in practice of what he’s going to see in the game and try to simulate that, and throw and catch the ball more,” Smart said. “That’s the end of the equation, try to put him in the same environment he’s in in the game. We can’t simulate wind. We can’t simulate some of the things South Carolina did with our scout team. We’ve got to do a better job of putting him in situations he’s going to be in in the game. …
“You’ve got to encourage, you’ve got to teach, you’ve got to improve him as a player so that there’s progress there.”
And hope you don’t lose one you shouldn’t in the meantime.