In picking Kirby Smart’s Dawgs as the way-too-early favorite to win the SEC East in 2017, many college football prognosticators are counting primarily on the return of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, along with most of Georgia’s defense, but also on rising sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason making significant progress from his spotty first season as a true freshman.
Eason arrived in Athens with probably the most hype ever accompanying an incoming UGA quarterback, certainly the most since another high school prodigy, Matthew Stafford. Like Stafford, Eason took over the starting job as a true freshman (in fact, much earlier than Stafford did), and, also like Stafford, he suffered through a pretty steep learning curve in a fairly mediocre season for the Dawgs.
However, while fans saw the proverbial light bulb come on for Stafford late in his first season, Eason was still showing a frustrating mix of potential and freshman mistakes on into his first bowl game.
The question Georgia fans are pondering as Eason prepares to begin his second spring practice: Which is more indicative of the coming season, the occasional flashes of brilliance the young quarterback showed in his first season, or the frustrating lack of progress that was evident under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s tutelage in a year that saw the Bulldogs’ offense mostly mediocre?
In Eason’s favor, he did complete 55 percent of his passes as a true freshman, throwing for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions. And he did all that despite playing behind a terrible offensive line that meant he had to learn his job while under constant pressure from opposing defenders. Plus, he had an underperforming receiving corps that dropped quite a few well-delivered balls.
Looking back over Eason’s first season is a mix of highs and lows. Coming on in relief of a largely ineffective Greyson Lambert midway through the opening game against North Carolina, Eason was off-target on some of his throws and had trouble getting the team out of the huddle and into the right play, but also showed promise in leading the Dawgs to a couple of scores. His third-down, 51-yard completion to Isaiah McKenzie with 7:55 to go in the fourth quarter was the sort of big-time play Georgia fans had been envisioning ever since the highly-sought prospect indicated he’d play at UGA.
The same problems he’d had in his first game persisted as Eason took over the starting job the next game against Nicholls State. And, like most of the team, he looked rather ordinary as Georgia struggled against a lightly-regarded opponent. He was yanked for the latter part of the fourth quarter after throwing an interception that was returned 91 yards to set up a Colonels score in a game that the Dawgs won, but just barely.
Eason appeared to be getting back on track against Mizzou in a game where the running attack was stymied and he was forced to throw 55 times, the most for a Bulldog QB since 2000. He again was off-target on more than a few passes and did throw one really bad interception, but, he showed considerable poise, especially for a freshman, and made key plays under constant pressure, most notably a fourth-and-10 touchdown throw to McKenzie that was superbly executed. As Chubb said afterward: “Eighteen-year-old kid, and he came in here and won the game for us.”
Then came the Ole Miss debacle, in which the Georgia QB was sacked 3 times, forced to hurry numerous throws under pressure and took the first really hard hits of his college career. The results were predictably awful, as he completed just 44 percent of his passes (16 of 36) for 137 yards and 1 interception while throwing into double coverage too often and overthrowing other passes. Of course, he again wasn’t helped by his receivers dropping at least 6 passes they should have caught.
While Georgia wound up victimized against Tennessee by a poorly-defended Hail Mary pass, most fans left that game encouraged by Eason’s showing, as he made a number of key passes, including that impressive strong-armed 47-yard touchdown play to Riley Ridley that appeared (prematurely) to have won the game. It was the sort of big-time throw Georgia fans had expected of the nation’s top high school QB prospect, drawing a window-rattling roar from the home crowd. The Dawgs somehow found a way to lose that game in the final seconds, but a Tennessee fan consoled me as I walked out of the stadium that night, saying, “That Eason kid is going to be a stud.”
However, the one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of Eason’s first season showed up again in the South Carolina game, as he completed just 5 of 17 passes for 29 yards (a 26-year low for a Georgia offense) in a shaky Georgia win. His receivers again were guilty of several drops, but there was no disputing the Georgia QB was way off-target on many of his throws.
Against Vanderbilt, Eason had a better game statistically, going 27-for-40 for 346 yards and a touchdown. Ultimately, he was undone by Chaney’s poor play-calling in an embarrassing loss, but the freshman also continued to overlook wide-open receivers.
The entire Georgia offense was pretty horrendous against Florida in Jacksonville, though there was one drive where Eason showed promise, scrambling and improvising after Chaney’s ineffective play-calls broke down. The only time Georgia’s offense showed any life at all was when Eason freelanced to make plays, and he showed a really nice touch on his one touchdown throw.
The dropped passes and Eason’s accuracy problems (particularly on downfield throws) showed up again in the win over Kentucky, but he was effective when Chaney went with a shorter passing game. And, in the upset victory over Auburn, Eason completed a number of tricky passes and really had only one bad throw all day.
In the regular-season closer against Tech, Eason made a couple of key throws, but again suffered from a couple of passes dropped, was off-target a couple of times when he had open receivers, had other throws batted down, and saw a poorly-thrown pass bounce off the hands of his receiver and get picked off by a Tech defender to set up the Jackets’ winning drive.
During the first half of the bowl game against TCU, things didn’t look much better, with Eason throwing into double coverage while ignoring open receivers and wildly missing on some passes he should have completed. But, he made a couple of nice runs, kept his cool in the second half, when Chaney spread things out a bit, and his scrambling set up the Dawgs’ first score.
Lasting impressions from Eason’s inconsistent first season: Though considered primarily a drop-back passer, and by no means as mobile a QB as Aaron Murray, he actually looked more effective when he rolled out or scrambled. And, despite Chaney’s insistence on trying to make him a true pro-style quarterback playing under center, it was pretty obvious that Eason is more comfortable playing out of the shotgun in a more spread-out offense, as he did in high school.
Looking ahead, either Eason will have to buckle down and get over that, or Chaney will have to relent and adapt his offense more to his QB’s comfort zone. Clearly, someone is going to have to change if Georgia’s offense is to become more consistent.
Overall, Eason’s first season showed us why he was so highly ranked, but he progressed much more slowly than we’d expected. Still, I saw enough of the quarterback he could become to leave me optimistic about the likelihood of Eason making that great leap so many are expecting.
Ice Dawgs in national title picture
In case you don’t follow UGA’s club ice hockey team, Ice Dawgs booster Connor Kelly, a former player, provides a timely update:
The team has been absolutely dominant this season, with a record of 26-1-1. It won the Savannah Tire Hockey Classic in January over Florida and Georgia Tech (a tournament that draws more than 10,000 fans), and repeated as conference champs in the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference by running the table in league play. (You can check out a video report on the team’s season here.)
All this success has earned the Ice Dawgs their first trip to the national championships in more than a decade. UGA had to win the South regional tournament in Tampa, Fla., recently to earn a berth to nationals. Out of 140 teams across the nation, UGA is among the 16 to advance to the national tournament, which begins Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, and runs through Saturday.
In order to come up with the necessary funds to pay for the trip, Connor tells me the Ice Dawgs created a GoFundMe page, and, thanks to the generosity of Bulldog fans, they reached their goal. However, any of the cost they don’t raise will have to be paid out of the players’ own pockets, so if you’d like to support collegiate hockey and help bring a national championship back to Athens, you can go to gofundme.com/uga-hockey-trip-to-2017-nationals.
As a non-varsity sport, the Ice Dawgs are 95 percent self-funded, so every little bit helps.
Go Ice Dawgs!
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