ATHENS – The signing of Stetson Bennett IV didn’t produce the biggest of headlines for Georgia on national signing day.
All those 5-stars that helped the Bulldogs earn a No. 2 national ranking did that. But as UGA prepares to open spring practice on Tuesday, there might not be a more important new player in camp.
Bennett plays quarterback. He returns to Georgia after a brief hiatus in which he headed to Ellisville, Miss., to play for Jones County Junior College. The fact that he left as a walk-on and returns on full scholarship is noteworthy.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Bennett will enter spring ball as Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback behind junior Jake Fromm. Technically, he’ll share that spot with freshman early enrollee Dwan Mathis, and coach Kirby Smart will insist there is no hierarchical distinction between the two. But make no mistake about it, should Fromm encounter any sort of misfortune, it’s going to be Bennett who trots out there first to try to keep the Bulldogs’ high-flying offense running.
More on the whys about that later. Simply stated, those who have followed Bennett the closest these last few years insist Georgia folks aren’t excited enough about this 5-foot-11, 190-pound quarterback being back on campus.
Bennett’s high school coach leads that chorus.
“He’s a Baker Mayfield is what he is,” said Sean Pender, who coached Bennett at Pierce County High School and has known him since he was a fourth grader. “He’ll prove that once he gets out there. He’s a lot faster than people think he is. He has that same confidence and air about him. He’s got a laser-accurate arm and he’s wicked smart.”
Yes, but what about that size, or lack of it? Surely, he can’t expect to excel in the rugged SEC under 6 feet fall?
“He’s right at 6-foot, but he’s got the hands of somebody who’s 6-4,” Pender said. “He has big hands and can really grip the ball and rip it.”
Said Steve Buckley, who coached Bennett last fall at Jones County: “Stet has the arm, legs, feet and hands to be a really, really good quarterback. He’s 5-11½; I’ve measured him. So, can a 5-11½ quarterback play? Absolutely. One’s about picked in the first round if I’m not mistaken and he might be shorter than that.”
That’d be Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who some project as No. 1 pick in next month’s NFL draft. Murray measured 5-foot-10 and 1/8-inch at the NFL combine last month. Mayfield measured 6-foot and 3/8-inch before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round a year ago.
But comparing Bennett to college football’s last two Heisman Trophy winners, isn’t that a little hyperbolic?
“I can’t tell you that he’s going to be Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield; that’s not fair,” Buckley said. “I just think that Stet has the skill set and a high, high football IQ – understands checks, understand protections, understood more than we were able to do last year, honestly – to be a very good college quarterback.”
Self belief is Bennett’s fuel
More important than that, Bennett believes in himself. That’s why he took this circuitous route to get back to where he started at Georgia.
If and when Bennett gets a chance to prove himself on the field with the Bulldogs remains to be seen. Fromm remains firmly entrenched at the moment, and UGA continues to recruit blue-chip quarterbacks every year. Most of them arrive prototypical in size and pedigree, such as the 6-foot-6, 4-star that is Mathis and the guys the Bulldogs are pursuing for 2020.
But that’s OK with Bennett. He is willing to give Georgia another shot, and the Bulldogs believe Bennett is worth another look. They backed that up this time with a full scholarship and the promise of fair shot in competition.
Bennett left Georgia feeling like he didn’t get that. The 2017 season was one thing. Bennett showed up from Pierce County High as an unheradled preferred walkon charged only with leading the scout team and giving Georgia’s defense a good look. He did such a good job of it that he earned the praise of defensive coaches and teammates in preparation for the College Football Playoff.
“Stetson Bennett is a beast, man,” Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said as the Bulldogs prepared to face Mayfield and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. “Stetson Bennett puts a lot of pressure on our defense because he is extremely quick, he’s fast and he can throw. He can throw in the pocket and he can throw on the run, and he’s very, very competitive.”
After the season, Bennett was told he’d be able to compete for Georgia’s backup quarterback job in 2018. That’s not what happened, though. Georgia signed Justin Fields out of Harrison and Bennett felt the coveted 5-star signee was thrust ahead of him on the depth chart without backing it up with his play on the practice field.
All that came to a head in the 2018 G-Day Game. Fields indeed filled the role as No. 2 quarterback and looked good doing it as he passed for 207 yards and a touchdown against the No. 2 defense and other backups. Bennett went third and completed 5-of-9 for 73 yards against the No. 1 defense.
Bennett got the message and decided he’d be better off trying to make his way elsewhere.
“He thought he’d have a legitimate shot for the back-up role, but when Justin came there he didn’t really get that chance,” Pender said. “Justin was put right in front of him, and Stet decided ‘maybe Georgia’s not the place for me.’”
Bennett’s father, Stetson Bennett III, confirmed that account.
“He turned down 20 offers to fulfill his childhood dream at Georgia,” he said. “But then he had re-assess it at the end of the first year. And that’s what he did.”
When Bennett informed Smart he planned to leave, the Bulldogs came up with a scholarship to try to keep Bennett. But at that point it was less about a grant-in-aid than it was about simply playing.
“We talked about it after spring and he said, ‘Daddy, I just want to play,'” his father said. “I said, ‘Well, son, let’s go play.’ Obviously, there’s no bad blood on either side. He just felt he was good enough to play somewhere, so he went and played somewhere.”
That somewhere ended up being Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss. The Bobcats were the first school to step up and say they wanted him, that he’d be on scholarship and that he’d play.
“When I got word that Stet was leaving, I didn’t know who he was,” said Buckley, who was offensive coordinator at Southern Miss for many years. “But I watched his tape and he had the skill set I was looking for. I told him to come on. I think Kirby offered him a scholarship to stay, but all he really wanted was a chance to play. I told him we’d give him that.”
Bennett started all 12 games at quarterback for the Bobocats, leading the freshmen-laden team to a 10-2 record and an appearance in the Mississippi JUCO championship game. They lost a close-fought heart-breaker with three fumbles inside the opponents’ 20.
About those junior college numbers
Bennett completed 145 of 259 passes for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Bobcats. But he also had 14 interceptions, and that’s the biggest criticism he gets from discerning fans and skeptical recruiting analysts. But while that touchdown-to-interception ratio is nothing to write home about, to judge Bennett on those numbers requires some context.
First, it’s important to know the ground rules of junior college ball in Mississippi. Teams there get 55 scholarships, but only eight of those can go to players from outside Mississippi. The out-of-state scholarship distribution typically goes this way: 1 quarterback, 1 running back, 1 wide receiver, 1 linebacker, 2 defensive linemen and 2 defensive backs.
Generally, they stay in-state with offensive linemen, of which 14 schools have to come up with five apiece. All but one of the Bobcats’ linemen were freshmen. So were all eight of the wideouts and the starting running back.
“We did find out he’s durable,” his father said with a laugh. “That’s the good side of it.”
Oh, and there was this — Bennett had labrum surgery on his shoulder shortly after leaving UGA. He was unable to throw with his receivers at Jones until the last couple of weeks before the season started.
“I knew that coming in,” Buckley said. “The shoulder thing was just a scope deal; it wasn’t that bad. But he couldn’t really throw with our receivers until the week of the first game. I told him coming in we weren’t going to rush him on that and we didn’t. But it took a while to get the timing and rhythm down.”
All and all, it was a good experience for Bennett. After a slow start, he eventually built a rapport with his receivers and the offense. He also had 148 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns running the football, though very little of that came on designed runs. Jones County’s offense ended up being one of the best in Mississippi JUCO ranks in 2018 and Bennett finished 12th in the nation in passing. His best game came in the semifinals when he threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 65 yards in a 36-34 win.
“He has all the football skills and a high, high IQ,” Buckley said. “He probably understood more concepts than we were able to give him because he had so many freshmen around him.”
Bulldogs come calling again
Once again, Power 5 schools still weren’t beating down Bennett’s door to sign him. His best offers ended up being similar to the kinds he fielded as a senior at Pierce County High School in Blackshear. One came from Louisiana-LaFayette, an FBS school which thought Bennett could come in and win its starting job. Samford and Coastal Carolina also offered opportunities for Bennett to come in and play both football and baseball.
Georgia was keeping up, too, though. Bennett received several congratulatory messages on Jones’ playoff run. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs found out in December that Fields intended to transfer.
“When Justin left, Georgia called him back said they wanted him,” Pender said. “They said they’d put him on scholarship and he’d get a legit chance to compete in the spring. He said, ‘I’m going to get a real opportunity to do it this time.'”
Buckley actually advised Bennett against returning to Georgia.
“I didn’t think it was the right decision,” Buckley said. “I thought he’d be able to do more right away at LaFayette or UMass or Samford. But Stet loves Georgia; he wants to play at Georgia. If he’s happy, I’m happy.”
To be clear, the Bulldogs are happy, too. Flipping Mathis from his Ohio State commitment and getting him to sign with UGA was a masterful stroke by Smart and his staff. But the book on the 6-6, 205-pound, 4-star freshman is that he’s “raw” from a development standpoint. To expect him master the Georgia’s sophisticated pro-style offense — this season — to the point he could lead the team in Fromm’s absence would be unreasonable.
That’s why getting somebody like Bennett, a seasoned player who already has some familiarity the Bulldogs’ system was so important. And so we’re now learning that Bennett was always Georgia’s Plan A in the Plan B plan. It turns out that Georgia had been in talks with Bennett for quite a while.
“They were keeping up and showing us they still cared,” Bennett’s father said. “When he threw for 300 in the playoffs we heard from a lot of Georgia folks.”
Georgia didn’t announce Bennett’s signing until the end of the day in the early signing period. That gave the impression that securing Bennett’s services was an afterthought.
That wasn’t the case at all. Bennett’s father said they’d been in talks with the Bulldogs for a while. Georgia simply didn’t want other schools to know they were after Bennett, lest they also come forth with offers.
“That was by design,” Bennett III said. “There was a lot of conversation before that. But it was by design to wait so nobody else would do that. When one offers, all the sudden everybody offers. That’s how that whole game works.”
Born to be a Bulldog
Stetson Bennett’s love of UGA comes naturally. His parents, Stetson and Denise, are both graduates of the university’s pharmacy school. “Stet” is oldest of five children — four boys and a girl — and the family’s favorite pastime was following the Bulldogs. Some of Stetson’s favorite childhood memories include road trips to watch the Bulldogs play at faraway places like Arizona State, Colorado and Oklahoma State, and they always went to Georgia’s bowl games.
That’s why Bennett, who passed for 3,700 yards and 40 touchdowns as a senior at Pierce County High School, chose to walk on with the Bulldogs rather than accept one of the 20 small-school offers he had. An honors student who scored a 30 on the ACT, Bennett also had the opportunity go Ivy League.
“Harvard and Yale were on the Pierce County campus for the first time ever – and on the same day,” Bennett III boasted. “That was the highlight of our principal’s tenure. They don’t usually stop in around here. But he went to Georgia to fulfill a childhood dream.”
Football runs in the Bennett family. Stetson’s grandfather, Buddy Bennett, played quarterback and defensive back at South Carolina. He also was part of a national championship at East Tennessee State and coached defensive backs at the University of Tennessee, where the Vols intercepted an SEC record 36 passes in 1970.
Buddy Bennett passed away three years ago. But he did so knowing his grandson was going to follow in his footsteps and play college football. That ‘Stet’ be doing so now at the University of Georgia would make his Granddaddy proud.
“My Daddy used to have a saying about players like ‘Stet,” Stetson III said. “He’d say, ‘he’s not big enough, he’s not fast enough, but nobody bothered to tell him.'”
This time around, the Bennetts believe they’ll see their son on the field playing for the Bulldogs and not just earning praise for his work on the practice field. Should Fromm sprain an ankle, get his bell rung or, God forbid, twist his knee, it’s likely going to be to Bennett to whom the Bulldogs turn.
“Nobody wants anybody to get hurt, but we might not know who Fromm is unless somebody got hurt,” the elder Bennett said, referring to the Jacob Eason injury that put Fromm on the field in 2017. “The Fromm family is great and we’re friends, but the University of Georgia has got to have a back-up plan. If you don’t, shame on you. Right?”