ATHENS – It’s well known that Kirby Smart was a recruiting dynamo at Alabama, particularly in the state of Georgia. He always had a keen eye for talent and often got the Crimson Tide involved very early with the best prospects.
That was the case with Jake Fromm. Early on, Smart identified the big right-hander from Houston County High School in Warner Robins, Ga., as a special player with an “it factor” that nobody can really define. Smart had a good relationship with Fromm’s high school coach, Von Lassiter, who was the first to convince him that Alabama should take a long and hard look at his quarterback.
Smart did. He liked what he saw and invited Fromm to the Crimson Tide’s camp. That represented the beginning of a relationship that might as well have been forged in steel.
Just ask Nick Saban. He knew how close Smart had become with Fromm and his family. So as soon as Smart was tabbed as the new coach at Georgia, Saban predicted Fromm’s defection like a zone blitz.
“We were excited to have him be part of our program,” Saban said this week, “but we understood when Kirby went to Georgia there was a chance of that happening.”
And it might’ve happened even quicker than Saban expected.
All the media attention in December 2015 was on Smart and his new staff’s intense efforts to keep longtime commit and 5-star quarterback prospect Jacob Eason on the hook. Jim Chaney’s first act as Smart’s new offensive coordinator was to fly from his old job in Pittsburgh to Lake Stevens, Wash., to meet with Eason.
Not known at that time was Smart had already made his overture to Fromm about following him to Georgia. Again, he was early in his recruitment.
This is something that probably will be hard to get Fromm to talk much about this week. The Bulldogs, for whom he now starts and stars, will be facing Saban’s Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday in Atlanta.
Smart, ever the controller of messages like his former boss, has restricted all media access until Saturday, when the title game’s mandatory media day takes place in downtown Atlanta. Surely Fromm will be extremely measured and anything but retrospective when it comes to the events that transpired between these two schools in recruiting two years ago.
But Fromm was quite clear on the subject when I visited him in Warner Robins in December 2016, a couple of weeks before he reported to UGA as an early enrollee.
“Yes, I immediately got an offer,” Fromm said of Smart’s move to Georgia. “Coach Smart was recruiting me for Alabama. Coach [Lane] Kiffin, too, but I had a really great relationship with [Smart] and just really bought into everything he had to sell. I really just loved his personality. My whole family loved him. It was like a perfect win-win situation for me and my family. I fell in love with the idea of going to Georgia. I’m a hometown kid, a home-state guy. I just wanted to be there; I wanted to be in Athens.”
That’s the way Lassiter remembers it, too. Officially, Fromm’s “flip date” from Alabama to Georgia is listed on Google’s news archives as March 3, 2016. That’s when you first read about it on DawgNation.
But he said Fromm had reopened his recruitment well before that and could have silently pledged to Georgia even before that.
“[The offer came] just days after Kirby got the job,” Lassiter recalled Wednesday. “Maybe the first day or the second day. It wasn’t long after that Coach Chaney came to see him. And then we went on an unofficial visit up there.”
Regardless of the actual date or moment of betrothment, Smart had the Fromms at “hello” once he was at Georgia. He’d always been their recruiting contact at Alabama, and they’d grown quite close. But the Bulldogs connection was unbeatable.
Combine that with the fact that the entire household, Fromm included, had grown up as Georgia Bulldogs’ fans, and it was a no-brainer. It didn’t matter whether Eason was already there or Tom Brady himself, Fromm was going to accept any offer from UGA.
That’s where Fromm’s heart always had been. He grew up in a house bedazzled in UGA regalia. But that all came down in the weeks and months he was committed to Alabama. Alabama was one of the first major programs to come forth with an offer; Georgia never did until Smart arrived.
At the apex of Fromm’s high school recruitment and evaluation, Brian Schottenheimer was Georgia’s offensive coordinator. And for whatever reason, Schottenheimer didn’t believe he fit the Bulldogs’ bill.
“The only time they weren’t Georgia fans is when Georgia didn’t offer him and he was committed to Alabama,” Lassiter said of the Fromms. “They were Bama fans for a little while in there. Otherwise, they’ve been all Bulldog all their lives.”
That’s one heck of a note now that Georgia is getting ready to face the Crimson Tide in UGA’s first appearance in the National Championship Game in 37 years. Few people believe the Bulldogs would be in the position they are without Fromm at quarterback.
At this point, the narrative that Fromm can’t make all the throws, or the one that Chaney has reduced the offense’s complexity because he has a freshman running it, have been proved to be nothing more than myths.
There are two plays in the second half of Georgia’s Rose Bowl semifinal win over Oklahoma that illustrate that.
The Bulldogs trailed 31-24 late in the third quarter and were facing third-and-seven at the Oklahoma 38 when Fromm broke the huddle and approached the line of scrimmage. Before he reached the backside of center Lamont Gaillard, he recognized something in the Sooners’ defensive set that excited him. He immediately began barking signals and shouting instructions to each of Georgia’s offensive linemen and to tailback Sony Michel, whom he directed to move from the right side of the backfield to the left. At the snap, Fromm handed the ball to Michel and he rambled untouched to the right side for a game-tying touchdown.
Later, when the Bulldogs were desperately trying to get down the field in the game’s final minutes to score and force an overtime, Fromm faded back to pass on third-and-10 and delivered a strike to Terry Godwin over the middle that went for 16 yards and a first down at the Oklahoma 7. Nick Chubb would score two plays later.
Even in extra time, after Lorenzo Carter blocked Oklahoma’s field goal attempt in the second overtime, it was the freshman Fromm who was settling down his teammates to focus on the new task at hand.
“I started getting everybody together to try to get collected and calm down and go try to score,” Fromm said. “Everybody’s is hyped and going crazy, you know, and I have to be the one to get everybody to have a level head and go attack from there.”
Michel attacked with a 27-yard TD run, and the Bulldogs’ ticket to Atlanta and their biggest game in 3½ decades.
College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who was calling the Rose Bowl for ESPN and will call the title game on Monday as well, raved about what he’s seen from the kid during a media conference call on Wednesday.
“The bigger the stage, the better he seemed to play,” Herbstrit said. “He’s one of those guys. Occasionally you have guys like that. So, as the game played out and Georgia was down, we kept trying to kind of get in front with ‘Georgia’s not out of this type of thing. This young kid is making adjustments and doing things that are unique to him.’ So, how he played, even though it would typically be very rare or unusual to see a guy play under pressure on that stage, knowing him and watching him, I personally wasn’t surprised at all.”
The ability and willingness to change plays is something Lassiter saw from Fromm going way back. Because Houston County ran so much fast-break/hurry-up offense, Fromm didn’t get a lot of opportunities to audible. But he took them whenever he could, even when his coach didn’t want him to.
Lassiter said he directed Fromm to “rodeo punt,” their terminology for a basic quick-kick, in a “huge region game.”
“That sucker changed it to a go-route with the outside receiver,” Lassiter said. “He threw it for a touchdown. If it hadn’t scored I probably would’ve strangled him. But it worked, and he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders and smiled and there wasn’t much I could say.”
The crazy thing is, now some people are saying that Georgia might have the edge at quarterback in this game. And that’s with the Bulldogs going against a quarterback in sophomore Jalen Hurts who has proved to be one of the best playmakers in college football and has led the Crimson Tide to 25 wins over the last two seasons and into the national title game twice.
Saban, for one, said he doesn’t see anything from Georgia’s offense to indicate their freshman quarterback is holding them back.
“He does a lot ‘check with me’s,’” Saban said of audibles, “which for a freshman quarterback probably demonstrates his knowledge of the game and preparation and intelligence. You know, he’s always been a fantastic passer and remains that way.”
Saban should know. He wanted him badly at Bama.
And so did Smart, wherever he happened to be coaching.