ATHENS — All eyes will be on Jacob Eason tonight when he receives the Bobby Dodd National Back of the Year award from the Touchdown Club of Atlanta at its annual banquet in Atlanta. But for the last 17 days, the highly-touted quarterback from Washington state has been toiling in relative obscurity with the rest of Georgia’s football players.
Eason entered UGA on Jan. 11 as one of the Bulldogs’ six mid-year enrollees. Since then, other than receiving a lot of knowing stares and posing for an occasional photo or signing an autograph on campus, Eason has been just another overwhelmed freshman trying adjust to his new surroundings.
“I haven’t heard from him that much. He’s busy,” said Tony Eason, his father, speaking by telephone from Lake Stevens, Wash., this week. “He has a full day every day. I know he’s working hard in the weight room and doing all that. So there hasn’t been a lot of conversations. He’s liking it and he’s working hard. He’s in college now and high school is behind him. That’s kind of where he’s at. He’s getting to know everybody and learning his way around school. Things are going well.”
Eason is not alone. He’s learning to negotiate UGA’s sprawling campus and rising each day before dawn along with defensive back Chad Clay, offensive lineman Ben Cleveland, tight end Isaac Nauta, wide receiver Riley Ridley and defensive lineman Julian Rochester.
At this point, the Bulldogs are now fully engaged in offseason strength and conditioning workouts. According to those in touch with these young men regularly, it has been a fun but challenging time for the newbies.
“You don’t have a lot of ‘me’ time,” said Derek Cleveland, father of the 6-foot-6, 319-pound offensive tackle. “His days start around 6:30 and they end at about 6:30 or 7 o’clock at night, and this is the slow season. So he’s had a wake-up call. It’s been a bit of a reality check and a gut check for him.”
Said Jay Nauta, father of the 5-star tight end: “They’ve started on speed and agility. The coaches are still on the recruiting trail, but the players are working hard. Isaac is enjoying school, and he loves the system there. He said, ‘Dad, it was the best decision I could have made for one of my first business decisions. So he’s really getting involved in school and in classes, so it’s going to give him a good edge.”
The expectations are extremely high for this year’s recruiting class, and these early enrollees in particular. Including them, the Bulldogs have only 15 commitments so far and they’re expected to sign around 25. So there is a lot of work still to be done in recruiting.
“We’re keeping an eye on who Georgia winds up getting; that’s pretty exciting,” Tony Eason said, who earlier in the conversation bemoaned the decision of wideout Tre Nixon to commit to Ole Miss. “You never know. Every kid has to make the right decision for himself, but we’re sure hoping it works out where Georgia gets all the top guys they want. So it’s pretty exciting waiting to see it all unfold.”
The midyears are a particularly star-studded group, led by the 5-star quarterback who is expected to compete for the starting job in his first season. Thanks mainly to them, Georgia’s 2016 recruiting class carries a No. 9 national ranking into the last weekend before National Signing Day.
It’s after signing day when the pressure will really get ramped up on these players. Georgia will begin spring practice in March.
“My biggest thing is I just hope these young men live up to the hype,” said Derek Cleveland, whose son Ben won’t turn 18 until late August. “I hope they can meet up to the expectations that everybody else has for them. … Jacob and Isaac and Julian and Ben, all these guys, the Dawg Nation is expecting a lot from this group. I just hope they can fill those expectations and not be a disappointment. But it’s like I told Ben, go out there and give it all you’ve got and let the cards fall where they may. That’s all you can do.”
But along with that nervousness, there is also excitement.
“I just got to spend some time with Isaac this past weekend,” Jay Nauta said. “One of the things that was interesting, just talking to a bunch of the guys, it just seems like the whole morale and the interaction these kids are having with these coaches is pretty special. They’re excited. These coaches are really involved with them, in dinners and their outside relationships and everything. They’re excited about it and pumped up about it. That’s what I’m hearing.”