ATHENS – It’s a pretty unusual situation in which Georgia finds itself at quarterback heading into spring practice, which begins Tuesday. But it’s not unprecedented.
The Bulldogs have an experienced senior coming back in Greyson Lambert, who went 10-2 as a starter a year ago. But they also have a hot-shot, all-world freshman coming in Jacob Eason. And junior Brice Ramsey represents a third option that some might argue hasn’t gotten enough opportunity to date.
Exactly 25 years ago, Georgia had a remarkably similar situation. In 1991, Eric Zeier also arrived in Athens as a highly-touted, vigorously-recruited quarterback. In fact, he was one of the first of his breed, a midyear enrollee who managed to graduate from high school early so he could compete for playing time as a true freshman.
But the Bulldogs also had a well-respected and heady returning starter in Valdosta’s Greg Talley, who had paid his dues. And there were a couple of other highly-recruited signal-callers in the fold as well in Preston Jones and Joe Dupree.
Zeier remembers it all like it was yesterday.
“What I will always remember was arriving on campus and the very next morning Coach (Joe) Tereshinski comes walking through McWhorter Hall with a bullhorn in his hand and just blowing that thing up around 5:30 to get us up to go work out,” said Zeier, now a mortgage executive with Bank of America and an analyst on UGA football radio broadcasts. “So we jump out of bed and run over to the practice fields. It was freezing cold. And there’s Wayne McDuffie out there on the turf with trash cans set up all around, you know, just in case you needed them to get sick into. And they got used — a lot.”
The contrast was stark from where Zeier was just a few weeks before with Alabama, Florida State and dozens of other schools vying for his services.
“You go from being a highly-touted recruit and people really begging for you to come to their school, to literally competing every single day,” Zeier said. “That’s what Jacob Eason is doing right now. That’s what all the quarterbacks are doing. They’re competing for the hearts and minds of their teammates, they’re competing through their work effort and work ethic, even before they step on the field.”
Now comes the fun part. Now they get to step on the field. Lambert, Eason and company will be given 14 practice opportunities between now and G-Day on April 16 to prove their worth to their coaches. By all indications – and new coach Kirby Smart hasn’t offered many – the competition will continue into the summer and it will be well into preseason camp before a starter is decided.
The competition between Zeier and Talley – it ultimately boiled down to those two – actually was not decided until well into the 1991 season. They began the year as co-starters.
Talley started the first five games of the season, with Zeier generally playing in the second half. But Zeier started the last seven, and eventually Talley didn’t play at all.
The turning point came midway through the season when Zeier led the Bulldogs to a stunning 27-12 upset win over No. 6-ranked Clemson at Sanford Stadium. The young freshman from Marietta came off the bench to pass for 249 yards and threw two touchdown passes to Andre Hastings.
“It was that game that I solidified my spot,” Zeier said. “That was the game I started to figure out that I could play.”
Yes, he could play a little. Despite not starting until the halfway point, Zeier would go on to set school passing records for completions (159), attempts (286) and yardage (1,984) that season. By the time he left UGA four years later, he’d own 67 school and 18 SEC records.
Will Eason have a similar future? Will it take Eason as long? Does he start the first game? Does he – gulp — redshirt?
Everybody wants those answers now. But the only way to get them is to let it play out on the field.
That’s the way it’s always been. Quarterback competitions have been around as long as there has been football. Sometimes they devolve into full-fledged controversies where the fan base — or worse, half of it — wants the backup over the starter. Sometimes they go as expected.
The reality is, you’re probably not going to have a very good team unless you’re recruiting well enough at the quarterback position that someone else is always threatening the starter’s playing time.
“I had quarterback competitions from the first day I arrived,” said former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, whose first season was 1964. “That first season we had Preston Ridlehuber and Lynn Hughes. And as it worked out, it was good that we had them both because they both contributed.”
Both Hughes and Ridlehuber ended up starting that season. Hughes served as the reliable tactician while Ridlehuber was the unpredictable playmaker. They’d perform well enough to the lead the Bulldogs to a 7-3-1 record and a berth in the Sun Bowl. It was the program’s first bowl in four seasons. Hughes would eventually bow out and become an All-American at safety.
Dooley readily rattles off the names of all the other quarterback competitions over which he marshaled. Essentially it was one for every one of his 25 seasons at the helm. Some of them were more high-profile than others.
Dicky Clark was heavily involved in a competition with Ray Goff and Matt Robinson in 1974, only to lose out, move to defense and become an All-SEC defensive end. Buck Belue is known for leading the Bulldogs to their second consensus national championship in 1980, but he actually lost the competition to start the year before to senior Jeff Pyburn. Belue would earn it back later in the season, only to suffer a broken leg that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
Very little, Belue points out, was decided during spring practice.
“The funny thing is we were competing all right, but we were competing out on the baseball field,” Belue said with a laugh. “We were both hitting in the middle of the lineup. Neither one of us went through spring football, thank goodness.”
Spring practice wasn’t for the meek in those days. It was considered a time to toughen up your team. Almost every practice was conducted in full pads.
“Most of our spring practices were really tough and demanding,” Dooley said. “We thought that was a part of the training for the season. We used to say that’s when you put the guts in the football team.”
That’s not the case anymore. The NCAA now limits not only how many times teams can practice, but also how many of those practices can be full contact and when.
So it will be a while before anybody has a strong, informed opinion on how well Eason can compete against markedly bigger and faster players than he saw in suburban Seattle. That remains one of the biggest concerns for the nearly 6-foot-6, 220-pound gunslinger.
But there are a lot of others.
“What Eason has to overcome here is he’s got guys in front of him who know the other players on the team, who have already established themselves,” Zeier said. “The newness of college has worn off them and they’ve been in the fire of playing SEC football. They understand the speed of the game and the complexity of the game, and that goes a long way.”
Zeier said that Eason has at least one thing going for him that proved very helpful to Zeier: Georgia is re-tooling its offense.
Smart brought in a new offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney, who comes to UGA from Pitt with a reputation for creating prolific, balanced offenses wherever he’s been. It’s no coincidence that Eason re-committed to the Bulldogs after meeting extensively with the freshly-hired Chaney during Eason’s mid-December official visit.
Likewise, Zeier said his fortunes with Georgia were locked up after Ray Goff brought in McDuffie from the Atlanta Falcons as offensive coordinator and Steve Ensminger as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. They assured Zeier they would open up the offense to better suit his skill set.
“When you talk about the parallels, it’s kind of all there,” Zeier said. “It wasn’t a new head coach but it was a new coaching staff and a new offensive system coming in. And that bodes well for Eason. At least schematically it puts him on a level playing field with everybody. Eason’s still got to learn it. He can and he will.
“But until you get out into the live action of an SEC football game, you’ve always got a little bit of that lingering doubt. Regardless of how highly-touted you are, you wonder, ‘can I play at this level?’ Until that light comes on for him, it’s always going to be creeping into the back of his mind.”
NOTABLE QB COMPETITIONS
- 1958-59 — Charlie Britt and Fran Tarkenton: They had “Britt’s team” and “Tarkenton’s team” and they alternated entire offensive units. Georgia won the SEC championship in ’59.
- 1964 — Lynn Hughes and Preston Ridlehuber: Both played. But by season’s end Ridlehuber had the job and Hughes eventually became an All-America safety.
- 1974 — Sophomores Dicky Clark, Ray Goff and Matt Robinson: Clark moved to DE, Robinson became “the passing quarterback” and Goff led the Bulldogs to the ’76 SEC championship.
- 1979 — Senior Jeff Pyburn and sophomore Buck Belue: Pyburn started first three games before Belue took over as starter. Belue broke his leg and Pyburn took over.
- 1991 — Senior Greg Talley and freshman Eric Zeier: Talley started first five games before Zeier finally won the job mid-season and established UGA passing records.
- 1995 — Hines Ward, Mike Bobo and Brian Smith: Each started four games but the season was altered due to Bobo’s broken leg (and tailback Robert Edwards’ injury).
- 1998 — Quincy Carter, Daniel Cobb, Jon England, Nate Hybl, Mike Usry: Carter parachuted in after a short stint in pro baseball and beat out the others, none of whom would finish their football careers at UGA.
- 2006 — Senior Joe Tereshinski, redshirt freshman Joe Cox and freshman Matthew Stafford: “Joe T” started four games but got hurt. Stafford struggled early and actually lost job to Cox for one game before taking over.
- 2009 — Senior Joe Cox, sophomore Logan Gray, freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger: Cox holds off challengers to start all 13 games while Murray and Mettenberger both redshirted.