The following is a story that originally appeared in the AJC on June 12.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The Lawn, as they simply call it here, is a plush green field, surrounded by small buildings with white pillars. There are trees spaced out just enough to create the perfect blend of shade and sun.
The tour guide on this quiet June day at the University of Virginia is Greyson Lambert, a soon-to-be UVA graduate. As Lambert escorted a visitor through the grounds, if anybody recognized that he also used to be Virginia’s starting quarterback, they didn’t say.
“This whole area was built by Thomas Jefferson as he was building the school,” Lambert said, as he walked through a secluded garden, on the way to the Lawn. “There’s a lot of history here.”
It will soon be history to Lambert as well. In one month he will graduate from Virginia, get in his silver truck – which still has Wayne County, Georgia license plates – drive down to Athens, and join the Georgia football team.
It makes for an easy narrative: The Georgia kid is coming home, will finally get to wear the G, and will happily ride off into the sunset, even if he’s not the starter. A narrative, by the way, which is wrong.
“I saw some of that stuff,” Lambert said. “And I just smiled.”
‘I didn’t feel like myself’
It is the morning after quarterback Jacob Park has announced he is leaving the Georgia football team. Lambert, whose decision to join Georgia the week before no doubt hastened Park’s departure, is at a Panera in Charlottesville, ordering a grilled sandwich and soup.
“How tall are you?” the Panera cashier asked.
“Six-five,” Lambert replied, smiling.
Tall, a strong arm, smart (he graduated from Virginia in three-and-a-half years), a hard worker by all accounts, and yet it didn’t quite work out at Virginia. Lambert announced in mid-May he was transfering, a decision that came after nights of staring at the ceiling, not being able to go to sleep, aching over what to do.
Yes, slipping to No. 2 on the depth chart in the spring, after starting nine games last season as a sophomore, was a “minute” factor. But Lambert said it was a “culmination of things,” about half personal and half football.
“I just felt like I needed a change in order for me to gain back my love and joy for the game,” Lambert said. “I didn’t feel like myself. I just needed a change for me personally. …Towards the end here I was just not feeling like myself. And so I felt like for me to be able to accomplish what I want to accomplish I was going to need to change, and that was what kind of drove it.”
Lambert had good moments last year, including when he led Virginia to a 23-21 win over Louisville and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. (In the week leading up to that game Lambert spoke nightly with former Georgia quarterback Parker Welch, getting pointers on Grantham.)
But his time at Virginia also saw plenty of tumult: Two different offensive coordinators, as well as a third coach (Tom O’Brien) who was associate head coach for offense. When Lambert decided to transfer, he became the seventh scholarship quarterback to transfer from Virginia since 2011. The Cavaliers lost another key offensive player to the SEC East last year: Tight end Jake McGee transferred to Florida.
Lambert finished his one season as the starter with 1,632 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and competed 59 percent of his passes.
“You want a good coach, but you also want a great relationship. I don’t know if Greyson really had that at Virginia,” said Buddy Geis, who has been a football mentor to Lambert since working with him out of high school. Geis was a quarterbacks coach in the NFL and later Georgia Tech’s receivers coach.
“That’s just me talking,” Geis added. “He never said anything to me because I don’t think he would ever say anything bad.”
So Lambert left Virginia. The move to Georgia may have seemed a natural and easy one for him. It wasn’t.
‘Completely a career decision’
The problem with the local-boy-goes-home story? Lambert was actually born in Mobile, and although his family moved to Jesup when he was 2, and he grew up there, he stayed an Alabama fan. He never even attended a game at Sanford Stadium until high school, when he was being recruited. The campuses of Florida and Florida State are closer to Jesup than Athens.
When he decided to leave Virginia, at first Colorado State was near the top of the list. Mike Bobo had recruited him at Georgia. (When Brice Ramsey, a year behind Lambert, committed to Georgia, Lambert ended up looking elsewhere, ending up at Virginia.)
This time around, the way it happened with Georgia was almost accidental: Mike Ekeler, the Bulldogs’ inside linebackers coach, was at Wayne County recruiting another player. Lambert was there on a break, talking to his former coach, and ran into Ekeler.
“That’s kinda where the ball got rolling,” Lambert said. “It was just a weird moment that he would be there whenever I went to talk to my coach. I guess that’s the first time that Georgia crossed my mind.”
Ekeler got the quarterback in touch with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and head coach Mark Richt, and it went from there. Lambert connected right away with Schottenheimer, who he found “easy to talk to.”
Florida recruited Lambert too, and he visited Gainesville after Athens. He said he was genuinely torn between Florida and Georgia, finally opting for the Bulldogs.
When asked whether it was a personal or football decision, Lambert didn’t hesitate.
“It was completely a career decision,” Lambert said. “Obviously other people love the game. But in my eyes I can’t see anybody loving it more than me, even though everybody says that, probably. But it’s something that I cherish. It’s something that I just love deeply, and I want to be able to play as long as possible. Since I was a young kid, my dream has been to play at the next level.”
Lambert describes himself as someone who basically lived at Virginia’s facility and in its film room. Geis echoes that, remembering how their sessions would last hours, until Geis cut them off.
“He’s a humble kid, but he’s a worker and wants to be really good,” said Geis, whose NFL pupils included Troy Aikman and Jim Harbaugh. “If a lot of things fall in place for him I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with the big guys in a couple years. He has that type of ability, but a lot of things have to fall in place for you too.”
So the idea that Lambert is just going back to Georgia, content to be on the team …
“If he was as complacent as people think, he would have just stayed at Virginia,” Geis said. “His motivation is to go to a big-time school, like Georgia is, be successful, be the starter, and see where that takes him.”
‘You’ve gotta love competition’
Lambert preferred not to comment on the coming competition with Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta. He wants to join the team as quietly and smoothly as possible.
The situation at Georgia will be nothing new to Lambert. A quarterback competition? Yeah, he’s done that already. Maybe he doesn’t have the experience in the system that Ramsey and Bauta have, but Lambert knows what it’s like to be on a depth chart rollercoaster of emotions.
He already has a copy of Georgia’s playbook. How quickly can he pick it up and catch up? Geis said that even in high school Lambert had an ability to “absorb things quickly.” He thinks Lambert has a great chance to emerge as the starter.
“Obviously you want to go somewhere and play, help the team win,” Lambert said. “I guess you look at the depth chart. But wherever you do decide to go, especially as a transfer guy, you’ve gotta compete, and you’ve gotta love competition. That’s what this game is all about.”
In a humorous sidebar, Virginia printed pocket schedules with Lambert on the front, his decision to leave coming after the early set went to press. Lambert didn’t know about it until he saw them at a Charlottesville restaurant.
“I took a double-take, and realized that I was on it, so I grabbed as many as I could,” he said, grinning.
Virginia’s football facility is no longer available to him, but he’s still a student so he can work out for free at the school’s gyms. He’s also still working out on the practice fields, throwing to former Virginia teammate Miles Gooch, who was undrafted after tearing his ACL last year.
When he gets to Athens, he will move in with offensive lineman Hunter Long, taking the place in the apartment vacated by center David Andrews.
Lambert calls his three years in Charlottesville “a blessing.” He mentions his Christian faith, and how it grew and became important to him. He got his degree from “a great institution.” And he got playing experience.
“I’ve kind of experienced everything in between, from getting hurt, to coming back from injury, to gaining the starting job, to losing it, to gaining it back, going through QB competitions and QB competitions,” Lambert said. “I’ve experienced everything you could experience as a quarterback, and that’s helped develop me into the guy that I am today.
“I’m just thankful to all the coaches and the support staff at Virginia for the wonderful opportunity. Now I’m excited to see what the next chapter holds.”