Stetson Bennett’s incredible Georgia football journey continues, Hollywood scripts be damned
ATHENS —The Stetson Bennett story requires no makeup, special effects nor any sort of revisionist history.
It’s curious and inspiring in raw form, the Georgia quarterback entering his sixth season with college football fans at the edge of their seats.
Many have become believers in the 24-year-old former walk-on, others still doubt, and it makes no difference to Bennett.
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Bennett has cemented his name into the football history books, his two CFP Offensive MVP trophies proof positive his 2021 championship season was no fluke.
Confirmation is not high on Bennett’s priority list, which leads with winning games and extending the joy he gets from playing football.
Not all facets of Bennett’s story are what Hollywood would prefer, but the truth is compelling enough.
The first storyline Bennett rejects is taking on the role of underdog.
Bennett does not fit the part of scorned recruit wanting to prove everyone wrong after receiving no Power 5 scholarship offers coming out of Pierce County (Ga.) High School.
A 3-star prospect ranked as the 2,569th player in the nation (per 247Sports), Bennett’s options were few and far between, so why not take a swing at the big league?
Fact is, Bennett never really lost confidence in himself.
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“When people are like, ‘Do you play with a chip on your shoulder?’ Like, that’s where if you do, that’s where that question comes into question,” Bennett said, sounding very much like a bright young man who scored over 30 on his ACT.
“If this guy can only be Superman when everyone thought that he couldn’t be, then what happens when everybody thinks he can be? Does he still have that extra edge?
“That’s why, good or bad, I really don’t worry about what other people have to say.”
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Bennett doesn’t fit into the same box as most college football stars.
Bennett is not the polished public figure Jake Fromm was at Georgia, the player-coach JT Daniels turned out to be, or even a particularly scholarly student in the classroom.
Bennett just wants to play football, to the extent he implied on national television the day after the championship game he was willing to transfer to make sure that happened.
“I’m going to play football this next year, we’ll see where,” Bennett said on Good Morning America, appearing a bit more than tired after a night of celebrating.
“We’ll see if I can trust the decisions that are made by the staff and see where I’m going to play.”
The Georgia staff was among many that pursued high-profile Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams in the transfer portal before he chose USC.
Once UGA realized it was out of the Williams’ sweepstakes, Bennett got the assurances he needed to return to the Bulldogs.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken told a select group of boosters that Georgia’s championship quarterback was coming back to start.
Closed Door Conversations
Smart, like any coach, downplays private player dealings, including details of Bennett’s return, saying there were “a couple of conversations, just in passing.”
But on the same spring football press conference day Smart spoke, an unfiltered Bennett said there were “closed door conversations.”
Specifically, Bennett said, “There were a bunch of private conversations … it was time for me to be a little selfish.”
Again, not what 30-for-30 producers would want to highlight in the script.
But the shifting leverage in today’s college football world is a reality. Every recruit and returning player wants a clear picture of where they stand.
Bennett, after all of those years fighting his way through workouts and practices as an overshadowed reserve player, was within his rights to demand clarity.
Isn’t that what any parent would want their son or daughter to do in that situation?
For coaches, the new rule allowing players the freedom to transfer without sitting out a season is challenging.
But for players, the free agency in today’s game is liberating.
Sense of Urgency
Part of what makes Bennett such a unique success story is that he’s not who or what many think he is supposed to be.
And Bennett doesn’t try to pretend to be someone or something that he’s not.
There have been moments Smart and Monken, neither one to hold back, have let Bennett know more or better was expected.
Smart has called Bennett out for “bonehead” decisions more than once, but he also fiercely defends him, referring to him as “one of the least respected good players there is in this country.”
Bennett smiled when hearing his coach’s quote at the SEC Media Days in July, asking it be repeated so he could enjoy how it sounded again.
Bennett has a knack — really, a skill — of knowing how to take the sort of hard coaching necessary in championship programs in stride.
“You listen to the message, not the tone, and sometimes you need it,” Bennett said. “Sometimes you suck and you have to get better. Gives you some sense of urgency.”
Bennett soared to stardom when he responded under pressure with his team trailing in the fourth quarter of the CFP Championship Game. It was his fumble at the UGA 16-yard-line that set up Alabama’s go-ahead score and its only touchdown of the night.
Miraculously, Bennett flipped the switch, and a shaky offense came to life. Bennett led two scoring drives that saw him go 4-of-4 throwing the football with two touchdown passes.
The confetti rained down on Bennett from Lucas Oil Stadium’s high ceiling in the postgame, an unlikely hero holding the national championship trophy on the most talented team in Georgia football history.
Telling the Tale
What’s done is done in the Georgia record books, and no embellishments or cherry-picked statistics are needed.
Stetson Bennett is the tale of:
• an undersized walk-on quarterback who drew rave reviews for playing the role of Baker Mayfield in practice as Georgia prepped for Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl CFP Semifinal in 2017.
• a player who left UGA after his freshman year for Jones (Miss.) junior college so he could actually play in games, which he did in leading that school to a championship game appearance
• A 2019 transfer signee who awoke on signing day thinking he was going to take Billy Napier’s scholarship offer at Louisiana, only to decide to come back to Georgia to back up Fromm.
• A fourth-stringer entering camp in 2020 who didn’t start until after 1) Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman left during fall camp, 2) Daniels’ knee remained too injured for him to start the season, 3) first-game starter D’Wan Mathis struggled in the opening half against Arkansas.
“Just look at his story; Stet has gone through just about everything a guy could go through that comes to college,” former Georgia team captain Jamaree Salyer said. “He’s been around five years, I think he went to junior college, here for a year, and then he left, then he came back.
“Won a starting job, lost a starting job, been on the scout team, won big games …. Stet has lived the life of a college athlete to the fullest.”
Bennett’s breakthrough last season began when he heated up against the UAB Blazers in Week Two, playing himself back into being an option.
To think, Bennett considered leaving Georgia after the prior spring, needing to meet with Smart to be convinced he would have a chance to compete last fall.
Daniels was not only the clear starter but also, a Heisman Trophy favorite after representing Georgia at the 2021 SEC Media Days.
The picture began to change when Daniels was injured in a non-contact August scrimmage, Jalen Carter tossing a blocker into Daniels as he was throwing the football.
Daniels playing against Clemson in a telltale flak jacket after UGA kept the injury hidden, and a series of related injuries ensued.
By the time Daniels came out at the end of the first quarter against Vanderbilt in Week Four, a displaced muscle flaring up, Monken was on high alert.
Smart has always insisted on consistency and continuity at the quarterback position, and Monken is in the business of pleasing his bosses and scoring touchdowns.
If Daniels wasn’t healthy enough to get it done with prolific passing numbers and his 5-star arm, Bennett could bring enough mobility and experience to the table for Georgia to make a run for the championship.
“At some point,” Monken said, “I thought we can win it with either one of them at quarterback.”
Bennett took over as the starter against Arkansas in the fifth game of the season and held the job from there.
“Last year, I pretty much lucked into being able to go out there and play, to an extent, obviously,” Bennett said.
Part of Bennett’s so-called “luck” was Carson Beck having a bad day of practice after Smart publicly identified him as the No. 2 behind the injured incumbent after the 10-3 win over Clemson in the opener.
There was disbelief when DawgNation broke the story the Saturday morning of the UAB game that Bennett was expected to start.
When Bennett was announced as the starter on the Sanford Stadium scoreboard in the pregame, there were scattered boos.
Less than an hour later, many of those same fans were cheering: Bennett tied the school record for most TD passes in a game with 5 — in the first half alone!
“It didn’t really matter to me what the outside people were talking about,” Bennett said. “I was prepared to go out there and it didn’t really matter what everybody else said.”
Bennett’s 10-of-12 passing, 280-yard, 5-touchdown performance reinvigorated his “Mailman” nickname, as few counted on him to deliver in such dynamic fashion.
Smart substituted freely and limited the passing game in the second half, or Bennett could have easily had the school record to himself.
But as the outside world gets to know Bennett, they will learn that such a record wouldn’t matter much to him, anyway.
“It all comes from within for me, because I know what it feels like and looks like to be good,” Bennett explained.
“I want to do that for me and for my teammates, not to prove anybody wrong, or not to shut up the doubters and all that stuff.”
Bennett has spent the offseason in the media spotlight when not sweating bullets with his teammates under the hot Georgia sun.
“I take it how it comes,” Bennett said. “It ebbs and flows for me, I just wake up and drive to be better.”
Come Saturday, in the hours leading up to the Georgia-Oregon showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Bennett will begin his mental preparation in the locker room.
“I go and find a quiet place, the showers or whatever,” Bennett said. “I sit there, I brush my teeth, take a shower .... play some old country tunes just by myself for about 10-15 minutes. Cut my fingernails and then just get ready to go.”
Bennett surveys once out on the field, searching for minor details that might ultimately make a difference with the game in the balance.
“I like to figure out where the (play-)clocks are, figure out if there’s some kind of thing with the field that’ll throw us off,” Bennett said.
“Whether it’s the grass or when we go to Tennessee and it’s this high in the middle and really low on the outside, just little things like that.”
Monken, whose detailed nature reaches “anal” levels, per Bennett’s description, has made sure his quarterback has already checked off all the big things before game day.
The odds seem stacked against Bennett and the Bulldogs winning another title after seeing an NFL-record 15 players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft -- five in the first round. Another 13 Georgia players, including four former starters, exited the program via the transfer portal.
Recent history is against Georgia, too: The 2011 and 2012 Alabama teams represent the only program to repeat as national champions in the post-BCS (1998) era.
Regardless, Bennett is ready to get this final chapter of his football career underway, returning to the same building that saw him falter in a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game last December.
Bennett’s not spooked by Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He pointed out on Monday the field dimensions remain the same, the building a tad more familiar. Football is football.
The journey continues with an uncertain ending, Bennett does not fear failure, his motive as pure as it is clear.
“You don’t play football forever,” Bennett has said, “and you’d like to play football when you can play football.”
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