ATHENS — There is much to want to see — and to do — at G-Day. But, let’s face it, it’s the quarterbacks who are the stars of the show.
That will be the case for Georgia again this year as Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff final as a freshman, takes on Justin Fields, the No. 1-rated dual-threat quarterback in America in the Class of 2018, according to the 247Sports composite. Sanford Stadium gates open at 1 p.m., kickoff is set for 4 p.m. (ESPN, News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB), and 82,000 fans are expected to attend.
Technically Fields and Fromm won’t be going against each other. Alas, they are teammates and will join forces to help the Bulldogs defend their 2017 SEC championship this fall. But Fromm will pilot the No. 1 offense of the Red team and Fields will pilot the No. 2 offense of the Black squad. In the end, there will be a final score and everybody will add up what each quarterback did individually and decide which one played better.
That, of course, won’t be the way coach Kirby Smart and his staff look at it. Their objective is to have both quarterbacks ready to play to the highest level possible when they start playing the games that count in September. But Smart said he believes spring games can help them to that end.
“The expectation is to lead your offense, command the huddle, make good decisions, don’t turn the ball over,” Smart said of what he hopes to see. “It’s a quarterback game because of the way we structure it. … I’m excited to see what Justin does. I’m excited to see what Jake does.”
Regardless of how that turns out, it’s hard to imagine Fields or any of Georgia’s other quarterbacks playing better than Fromm this spring, or next fall, for that matter. By all accounts, the sophomore from Houston County picked up where he left off last season when he completed 62 percent of his passes and accounted for 27 touchdowns, including 3 rushing scores.
Reports are that Fromm has poured himself into maximizing the Bulldogs’ playbook and improving in areas of perceived weakness, such as throwing while on the run. Meanwhile, with a year of work under the direction of strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Sinclair, Fromm’s bigger and stronger than ever.
But the most significant strides made by Fromm have been cerebral rather than physical.
“Jake, his knowledge of the game, it’s crazy some of the things he sees,” sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas said. “The plays that he checks into sometimes [are] just perfect. Sometimes we didn’t even see it.”
Fromm’s obsession with getting the Bulldogs into just the right play has his coaches and teammates jokingly referring to him as “Peyton,” as in Manning, the future first-ballot NFL Hall of Fame member.
“That’s a joke that we have,” Thomas said. “We do a drill, it’s a check drill where we change the play to whatever you want to call it and Coach Smart tells Jake not to be Peyton Manning, because he tries to get the call perfect every time.”
Fromm insists he’s motivated only by self-improvement, but Fields’ presence couldn’t have hurt his cause. At 6-foot-3 and 225-pounds, Fields has wowed coaches and players with his “cannon” right arm and his ability to grasp Georgia’s extensive playbook. So the competitive pressure that coaches seek at every position is there at quarterback as well.
That said, any notion that a quarterback controversy is afoot is muted by the reality of the amount of ground Fields would need to make up to overtake Fromm as Georgia’s starting quarterback over the course of 15 spring practices and the 28 that will follow in August. That virtually assures that he’ll be utilized in a backup role, at least for his freshman campaign.
Then, again, one never knows. Fromm stands as the tried-and-true example of why a quarterback must always prepare as if he’ll be the everyday starter. As the cliché about quarterbacks goes, they are always only one play away from needing to carry the load.
“He’s really talented,” said junior tailback Elijah Holyfield, who counts Fields as one of his good friends. “I got to know him well during recruiting. He’s talented. That’s what I’ll say — he’s talented.”
Smart said in addition to Fromm and Fields, fans are likely to see walkon Stetson Bennett get some playing time with both the Red and Black squads. Officially, Bennett is on the Red team, which features the No. 1 offense. Fields’ Black squad will be paced by Georgia’s No. 1 defense.
Smart has asked fans to fill every seat at Sanford Stadium for G-Day, which will be nationally televised by ESPN and attended by a slew of the Bulldogs’ top recruits. Because of ongoing construction of the the $63 million West End project, capacity will be limited to 82,000 from the usual 92,746.
There are plenty of reasons for fans to want to watch. First and foremost might be to get a look at the Bulldogs’ early enrolled freshman signees. There are nine in all, including Fields. Unfortunately, 5-star running back Zamir White is recovering from a torn right ACL sustained at the end of his senior season in high school, and cornerback Divaad Wilson also tore an ACL the first week of spring practice. But offensive linemen Warren Ericson, Cade Mays and Trey Hill, outside linebacker Brenton Cox, receiver Kearis Jackson and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt all will be in action.
The competition is furious at linebacker and in the secondary, where the Bulldogs are seeking to replace mass departures from the defending SEC championship team. Tae Crowder and Juwan Taylor will man the inside linebacker positions on the Black squad while Monty Rice and Natrez Patrick will counter on the Red team. A number of sophomores and redshirt freshmen will be biding for playing time in the defensive backfield.
A groin injury is likely to keep projected starting tailback D’Andre Swift from participating. But juniors Holyfield and Brian Herrien are eager to carry the load for the Red team and are quite capable of doing so.
“We love it any time we get to play in front of a lot of fans,” Holyfield said. “We practice hard to play for them. So I’m excited about it and looking forward to it and hopes everybody comes.”
Smart’s excited about it, too, but for different reasons from everybody else. For him, it’s about seeing how some unproven players react to playing in a competitive environment before a large crowd. That includes the quarterbacks and one young freshman in particular.
Based on what he’s seen through 14 spring practices — a vibrant and talented receiving corps versus a young secondary depleted by injuries –— Georgia’s defensive-minded coach is expecting a high-scoring affair.
“Probably one of the more promising things of the spring has been the depth of the receivers and the competition in the receiver room,” Smart said after the Bulldogs’ final spring practice Thursday. “I think the receivers have been a little ahead of the DBs. If that continues Saturday, and it could, there could be some points scored out there. We’re going to find a lot out about guys.”
In the end, that’s the point.