ATHENS — Before the term “dual-threat quarterback” was common, or perhaps even existed, there was Fran Tarkenton. Thirty-eight years after he retired, he remains fourth all-time on the rushing yardage list for NFL quarterbacks.
So it’s little surprise that during the course of a conversation, the legendary former Georgia quarterback sung the praises of Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, and then offers up a very bold prediction.
“I think the day of the strictly pocket quarterback is over, in college and pro football,” Tarkenton said.
That may sound a bit premature, even hyperbolic. But Tarkenton ticks off some reasons it does at least sound plausible.
“The pass rush is too good. The kids on defense are too good,” he said Tuesday, after a ceremony at Clarke Central High School in Athens. “And you just look at the Super Bowl: Neither quarterback had a good game. it was won by the defense. And you had an iconic quarterback going out, Peyton (Manning), who set every record there was. He couldn’t get anything done against their defense. And you had Cam Newton, who’s in his prime, who’s a modern day quarterback who is bigger than life, arm, leader, runner. And the defense just stymied, shut him down.
“You’ve got to be able to throw the ball. But if you’re not able to move and pick up the first down, and have that threat to run out of the pocket here, run out of the pocket there, I think you’ve got to have that.”
When Tarkenton was racking up 3,674 career rushing yards – the most ever for a quarterback when he retired – he was known more often as a scrambling quarterback. And that sounds like what he believes the game is heading toward.
Wilson and Watson can both run, but that’s not their main feature. They still mainly pass, but extend plays with their feet. As the new head coach at Tarkenton’s alma mater still painfully remembers.
Kirby Smart’s final game as Alabama defensive coordinator saw Watson rack up 73 rushing yards in addition to 405 passing yards. Alabama won the game, 45-40, but Smart has rarely accepted credit, and has spent much of the time since then making clear he would love to have a quarterback like that on his side.
“I do think that creates challenges for the defense,” Smart said in January. “If you find the right guy, which … there have been a lot of good ones to come out of this state, then you use that. You also recruit to the style of quarterback you have, and that allows you to get other positions, whether it be running back, receiver. You also recruit to a NFL criteria of can this kid advance and go on to play in the NFL? More and more dual threat guys are doing that in the NFL. That’s opened the door to it.
“Would we be open to it? Absolutely. Can Jacob (Eason) do that? I don’t know that right now.”
That was before spring practice, when the highly-touted Eason, a five-star freshman recruit, made waves for his arm talent. But he also showed some running ability: According to multiple sources who were at one of the team’s two closed scrimmages, Eason had a touchdown run of around 50 yards. It came on a broken play.
Smart also at one point complimented Brice Ramsey’s running ability, saying it was unexpected. And while incumbent starter Greyson Lambert isn’t known for his speed, he did manage to extend a few plays last year, including a 13-yard run at Auburn.
Still, the fact is Georgia currently has three quarterbacks who would be fairly labeled pocket guys. And it’s recruiting strategy doesn’t seem to be deviating from that: Jake Fromm, a commitment for the 2017 class, is a pro-style quarterback, as is Trevor Lawrence, a target for the 2018 class. Georgia has offered several dual-threat quarterbacks, including Emory Jones in the 2018 class. But this is the same program that can boast Matt Stafford, Aaron Murray and perhaps now Eason, as well as tailback U (Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, etc.).
But Georgia is also the school that produced Tarkenton.
A speaker at Tuesday’s ceremony, in trying to explain to the high school students who Tarkenton was, put it this way: “For you young people, Fran Tarkenton was Russell Wilson times 100.”
Tarkenton also brought up Wilson several times during his ensuing speech and a subsequent interview. It took until the third round of the NFL draft for Wilson to be drafted, Tarkenton bemoaned. You know who else was a third-round draft pick? Tarkenton.
Then there was Watson, the product of Gainesville who Georgia did pursue several years ago, but too late to beat out Clemson. He very well might be the first overall pick in next year’s draft.
The first time Tarkenton saw Watson play was the national championship game. The way Tarkenton talks, he felt like he was watching a clone of himself, and another indicator of the direction the game is going.
“I was shocked how good he was,” Tarkenton said. “That wasn’t fake. He could run, he could throw, he made great decisions. That’s an important thing. He was comfortable in his skin. He wasn’t (experiencing) stage fright in the national championship.”