ATHENS – This being the election season, no scientific poll need be taken to judge who Georgia fans would like to see as their starting quarterback: Jacob Eason in 2016 would make Georgia football great again. Or at least that’s the prevailing feeling.
But the coming quarterback decision is not up for referendum. It’s a two-man back room consisting of head coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, with input from some other coaches and even players.
And the choice, at least for the season opener, is more likely to be Greyson Lambert, though with Eason getting snaps off the bench, according to two former SEC quarterbacks who have been watching the situation.
“Right now, with so many things up in the air, especially at running back, and especially with such a big game to start off, if Lambert just does what he’s been doing I think he’ll be the starter,” said D.J. Shockley, who led Georgia to the SEC championship in 2005.
The dynamics of Georgia’s opener complicate starting Eason: It’s against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome, where Tar Heels defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is likely to use exotic coverages that Eason would never have seen before. And reading a defense is key for a quarterback.
“It’s nothing Greyson Lambert hasn’t seen before,” said Greg McElroy, who quarterbacked Alabama to the national title in 2009, and is now an SEC Network analyst. “So I think that you go with the guy that would be the most comfortable in protecting himself and protecting the rest of his team with some of the stuff that they’re doing offensively. I’d be surprised if Jacob Eason took the first snap of the season.”
Then there’s Georgia’s uncertain tailback situation, as Shockley alluded to. Nick Chubb may or may not be ready to play by then, and even if he does play, how much will he trust his surgically-repaired knee? Sony Michel, who broke his arm earlier this month, has a timetable that runs right into the opener.
How much does all that mean to the quarterback decision?
“Oh yeah, it effects it,” Shockley said.
Shockley pointed to his senior season, his only year as the starter, in which despite his playing experience he still leaned heavily on the running game.
“If you can’t run the football then they’re going to come after you or they’re going to play coverage, and you’ve got to be able to pick them apart,” Shockley said. “I think Eason will play, I personally don’t think he will start but I think he will definitely play. But I think if Eason does start, and he doesn’t have both of those guys at 100 percent, I just think it’s not to the best of advantage for him, because you need those guys to lean on, especially when it’s going to be your first-ever game.”
But what about the counterpoint: If you think you’ll have a diminished rushing game, couldn’t you go with the quarterback with more upside because you’ll need to make up the lost rushing yards through the air?
“See, but I disagree,” McElroy said, pointing to what Chizik and North Carolina would throw at Eason, and thus the need for a more experienced game manager. “If in fact the running game isn’t able to carry the load like they’d like it to do, early, you might err on the side of the guy who’s been there before.”
But both former quarterbacks endorsed letting Eason see action against North Carolina – and wouldn’t be shocked if he did win the job.
“He’s a talented kid who, he’s going to deserve to play, you’ve got to see what you’ve got,” Shockley said. “You know what you’ve got in Lambert. Lambert’s a guy who still won 10 games for you, but at the end of the day I don’t think a lot of defenses were afraid of Lambert. He didn’t have that down the field kind of attack, and I know one thing Kirby wants to do is throw the ball down the field.”
“If Jacob separates himself by a wide margin, then absolutely (start him), without question,” McElroy said. “If it’s close and normal circumstances you would err on the side of Jacob Eason, because he’s a younger player and you have multiple years to deal with what he’s going to eventually become.”
But Georgia has such a rough stretch starting Week 3 – at Missouri, at Ole Miss, home against Tennessee – that four of the first five games are arguably toss-ups. It means Smart and Chaney would have to be really sure by going with Eason, and also risk having to hurt his confidence.
And as good as Eason looked in the spring game, Shockley pointed out that Eason knew the G-Day rules meant he wouldn’t be sacked. North Carolina will be under no such restrictions.
“You’ve gotta be able to react, think faster, things happen faster, things are going to happen five times faster than they did in the spring game,” Shockley said. “He’s got to be able to get in and out of plays, get him in good plays, know where to go with the ball, whether it’s a hot read or not. It’s going to be a lot of things going into him being starter, not just him being talented. He’s got to be able to lead them.”